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Quebec killer, alleged suspect in fatal Montreal fire, pleads guilty to prison escape

Denis Begin, 58, broke out of the minimum security Federal Training Centre where he was serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. He was nabbed in May 2023, and, in a dramatic turn, is suspected of starting the fire that killed seven people in Old Montreal in March 2023, though no charges have been laid in the case.
Denis Begin, 58, broke out of the minimum security Federal Training Centre where he was serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. He was nabbed in May 2023, and, in a dramatic turn, is suspected of starting the fire that killed seven people in Old Montreal in March 2023, though no charges have been laid in the case.
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A convicted killer who spent 51 months on the lam from a prison in Quebec — and who court documents cite as a suspect in a Montreal fire that killed seven people — has pleaded guilty to escaping custody.

Listed as one of Quebec's most wanted criminals, Denis Bégin was arrested in May 2023. On Thursday a judge sentenced him to 18 months in prison to be served concurrently with a life sentence that he is already serving for second-degree murder.

Court documents name Bégin as a suspect in the fire that killed seven people in an Old Montreal heritage building in March 2023, two months before he was caught on the lam. The documents from Correctional Service Canada cite Montreal police testimony alleging that Bégin was filmed by a surveillance camera in the area around the building before and after the fire.

However, Montreal police have never publicly identified him as a suspect and no charges have been laid in that case.

Bégin, 63, was serving a life sentence for a 1993 murder committed in Montreal when he escaped the minimum security section of the Federal Training Centre, a prison north of Montreal.

On Thursday, Bégin pleaded guilty to the prison escape in a brief appearance by video conference before Quebec court Judge Marc-André Dagenais in Laval, Que., north of Montreal. Dagenais agreed to a joint recommendation from the defence and Crown.

He is detained at the Port-Cartier Institution, a maximum-security prison where he was transferred after media reports last October linked him to the alleged arson at the heritage building. Bégin is challenging his transfer to Port-Cartier, and the court documents related to that challenge cite the Montreal police testimony naming him as a suspect in the fatal fire.

Bégin fled the prison on Feb. 15, 2019. The court heard that an accomplice had been waiting for him outside the Federal Training Centre and helped him escape. The accomplice received a nine-month sentence, which the judge took into consideration in sentencing Bégin.

Thursday's hearing provided no further detail about his escape. Corrections documents say that Bégin told authorities he quickly obtained fake identification papers to start a new life under various names. He worked for various companies before launching a maintenance firm and began a relationship with a woman who didn't know he was running from the law.

When Montreal police arrested Bégin last May, they said his arrest was not connected to his escape from prison but to an unrelated investigation.

The court documents from the correctional service show that Montreal police identified him using his fingerprints in the course of the investigation into the blaze after he tried using another name. A vehicle tied to Bégin was caught on surveillance camera on March 16, 2023, near the site of the heritage building that caught fire, the documents say. A person was seen on video driving to the building, then entering and emerging about five minutes later and driving away. The fire ignited soon after.

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.

He was sentenced to life after pleading guilty to second-degree murder in the killing of 19-year-old Ricardo Gizzi on Halloween night in 1993, a crime that earned him the nickname the "Halloween Killer." Wearing a hockey mask, Bégin walked into a bar and shot Gizzi, who was also in costume. News reports at the time said bar patrons initially thought they were witnessing a Halloween joke. 

- This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 21, 2024.

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