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Court documents identify suspect in Old Montreal fatal fire, but no charges laid

Denis Begin, 58, is shown in this undated handout photo. (Correctional Service Canada / Twitter) Denis Begin, 58, is shown in this undated handout photo. (Correctional Service Canada / Twitter)
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A convicted killer who police suspect started a fire in a historic building that killed seven people in Old Montreal last March admits he was at the scene of the arson but says it was someone else who set the blaze.

Documents from Correctional Service Canada that cite Montreal police testimony allege that Denis Bégin was filmed by a surveillance camera in the area around the building before and after the fire.

However, police have never publicly identified Bégin as a suspect and no charges have been laid in the case.

"The Montreal police never, with rare exceptions, comment on ongoing investigations in detail, so as not to hinder their progress," the force said in a statement on Friday.

First reported by La Presse, the documents from the federal corrections service say Bégin denies setting the fire but claims to have a photo of the person responsible on a secure cloud account.

The documents, which were obtained by The Canadian Press, are part of an application Bégin filed in Quebec Superior Court opposing a transfer to a maximum-security prison; he made the request after he was identified by La Presse in October in connection to the fatal fire.

Bégin, 63, spent 51 months on the lam after he escaped from a minimum security federal prison in February 2019; he was arrested in May during the police investigation into the deaths of seven people who perished when the building caught fire on March 16.

Corrections officials say they were told by a Montreal police investigator that a vehicle tied to Bégin was caught on surveillance camera on March 16 near the site of the heritage building.

A person was seen on video driving to the building, entering and then emerging about five minutes later before driving away. The fire ignited soon after.

The documents say that when police questioned Bégin as a witness to the fire, he was using another name. Investigators said he did not resemble the man he was pretending to be and was soon identified as Denis Bégin through fingerprint analysis.

Bégin claimed he was only a witness to the fire and had gone to the building to collect some tools; he said he was at the wrong place at the wrong time.

According to the corrections documents, Bégin told police he saw the person who possibly set the fire, adding that he had a photo to prove it.

He then allegedly told police he would release the image in exchange for immunity in the arson case. That offer was refused.

Bégin later revised his request, offering to collaborate with police to prove his innocence and to help his chances at parole. The corrections documents don't give more details, but they say authorities were concerned by his behaviour.

"Either this photo exists and he prefers to exploit the system rather than fulfil his duty as a citizen by revealing the identity of the man who killed seven people .... Or this photo does not exist and he's trying to find an exit door," the corrections document states.

The Montreal police homicide investigator told corrections officials that Bégin remains a suspect/witness in the fire probe.

Bégin is currently serving a life sentence for the murder of Ricardo Gizzi on Halloween night in 1993, a crime that earned him the nickname the "Halloween killer."

Although parole eligibility was set at 10 years, he was unsuccessful in securing a release before he fled custody in 2019.

Bégin has a criminal record dating back to 1979 that includes “crimes for arson” as well as theft, impaired driving, fraud, and murder.

The corrections documents also shed some light on his four years on the lam, during which he was considered one of Quebec's most wanted criminals. Bégin told authorities that after his prison escape he quickly obtained fake documents to start a new life under different names, including Claude Therrien and Maurice Boucher.

He worked for various companies before starting his own maintenance firm; he also entered into a relationship with a woman who didn't know he was running from the law.

"The gentleman claims that he led an orderly life with his partner," the corrections documents say, adding that his love life had been going through challenges since his arrest in May.

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2024. 

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