‘Weak’ evidence prompts likely plea deal in deadly Uranium City fire case

The Court of Queen's Bench in Prince Albert. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

Seven years after a fire in Uranium City left two men dead, the case against one of their alleged killers looked set to end in a deal with no jail time – until he failed to show up for court.

Ruth Fafard confirmed that the Crown was planning to withdraw a manslaughter charge against Christopher Champagne. In exchange, he was set to plead guilty to common assault on Thursday at Prince Albert’s Court of Queen’s Bench.

“That was the plan today,” Fafard said.

The RCMP’s historical case unit arrested Champagne in 2014, after a four-year investigation into a fire that killed Jack Cochrane and Phillip Nighttraveller. But defence lawyer Brian Pfefferle said the evidence linking Champagne to the 2010 blaze was “weak” and “entirely circumstantial.”

“There were all sorts of issues with the evidence,” Pfefferle said. “They can prove that these two guys were in the house earlier and they can prove… that there was an incident or a fight. But they can’t prove anything else.

“I think the Crown has acknowledged that,” he continued. “They made a decision that they wouldn’t have a reasonable likelihood of conviction.”

Michael LaRocque of Stony Rapids is also facing charges for the incident. His lawyer, Kevin Hill, said the evidence against his client is somewhat different from what he’s seen in Champagne’s case. But he said he’s also working toward a plea deal.

“It was always a difficult case for the Crown,” Hill said, “in terms of who or what or under what circumstances those unfortunate individuals passed away. I think that has always factored into our discussions.”

On Thursday, Pfefferle told the court that the Crown and the defence had agreed to a joint recommendation for a “community-based sentence” for Champagne. But that will have to wait, since his client didn’t make it to Prince Albert in time for the hearing.

Pfefferle said Champagne was travelling from his home in British Columbia, but “got stuck” in Alberta.

“He tried his best to be here,” Pfefferle said.

His absence led Fafard to seek a Canada-wide warrant for Champagne’s arrest. She said that family members of both Cochrane and Nighttraveller had travelled hours to attend the hearing.

The judge accepted her request.

For more on this story, see the September 8 edition of the Daily Herald.