By The Canadian Press
Feb. 17, 2015, Prince George, B.C. - A judge who convicted a former fire chief of sexually assaulting three female volunteers at the Fort St. James, B.C., department says the man created a toxic workplace with his "bad behaviour.''
By The Canadian Press
B.C. Supreme Court Judge Glen Parrett said the actions of 51-year-old Robert Bennett were so objectionable to some of the male firefighters that they felt they had to screen him from the women.
Court heard the complainants — Kirsten Rudolph and Joy Reierson, both 46, and Lisa Button, 48 — went to the RCMP in July 2013 after six and half years of abuse at the hands of Bennett.
Besides the women, seven male firefighters testified at the judge-alone trial in late January, which heard Bennett was initially respected in his role but then began drinking heavily and making
sexually suggestive comments before progressing further.
Court heard Bennett groped Rudolph and Button and tried to force himself on Reierson while they were alone in a room at the department’s main hall, with the door locked.
Parrett said testimony that Reierson appeared composed when a fellow firefighter saw her and Bennett in the same room was hardly surprising because that occurred before she had been taken to the floor.
And while testimony concerning what happened after she left the room was more muddled, Parrett said it showed fellow firefighters were concerned about the situation.
They also had to “literally lift” Bennett out of the woman’s vehicle as she tried to leave the fire hall following the incident.
Parrett found that none of the incidents over the years involved “innocent brushing” or touching and that even if Bennett intended to be humorous, a significant number of firefighters were
“embarrassed and shocked” by his actions and language.
As for the women’s civil lawsuit against Bennett and the District of Fort St. James, Parrett found no fault in the move given their doubts that their complaints would be answered.
“This is in fact what our system of justice is intended to provide to the citizens of this country,” he said.
Parrett said he remained skeptical about the testimony of Brian Schnepf, the department’s captain and third in command, about a July 2013 incident between Bennett and Rudolph in the main fire hall’s lounge.
Parrett said he found Schnepf’s evidence to be “contrived, calculated to conceal and mislead and virtually totally unworthy of belief” because it differed markedly from that of the other
Outside court, Rudolph said the evidence spoke for itself.
“He clearly did what he did, we weren’t lying and that was proven,” Rudolph said. “The people that are on the fence can now know which way to go and those that are on his side, there’s nothing we can do about that anyway. They’re always going to support him.”
A date for sentencing has been set for Feb. 23, and Parrett made it clear to Bennett that he is not to contact any of the complainants in the interim.