Two men who torched a building used as a drop-in centre by two LGBTQ+ services in Tauranga have been sentenced, with a judge finding the arson was “not a hate crime”.
Alexander James Burgess, 33, of Pyes Pa and Zechariah Vincet Phillips, 29, from Parkvale appeared in the Tauranga District Court today after earlier pleading guilty to a joint charge of arson.
Burgess, who appeared via audio-visual link from prison, was sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment after Judge Thomas Ingram said “unfortunately” there was no other option due to the lack of another residential facility to send him to.
Phillips, who appeared in court in person, will serve six months’ home detention.
Judge Ingram said it was clear from the medical report and other material before him that both men suffered mental health difficulties and had “significant intellectual limitations”.
The judge said while this was a serious case of arson with “very significant” impacts on the victims, he was satisfied it was “not a hate crime [by the definition] popularised by Parliament” nor was it a deliberate targeting of the communities of Rainbow Youth and Gender Dynamix - the two services that operated a drop-in centre from the building.
“In fact my view this was far from that. And what happened the day was related to these two men’s mental health state at the time and they were clearly seriously affected by their reduced mental and intellectual capabilities.”
Both men’s sentences included a raft of conditions intended to assist them to address their mental and intellectual difficulties needs, and “hopefully” prevent them from further anti-social behaviour, the judge said.
Judge Ingram declined to disclose what those conditions were.
The judge also took into account a report from a restorative justice meeting report where Burgess and Phillps met with their victims, as well as guilty pleas and expressions of remorse in his decision to reduce an otherwise 18-month prison sentence for Burgess by 50 per cent.
According to the Crown summary of facts, Burgess and Phillips arrived at Tauranga City Council’s closed Historic Village complex about 11.20pm on June 15.
Phillips was dragging a large black wheelie bin behind him and Burgess made his way to the rear of the village and positioned himself behind the Turning Point Trust’s horticulture area in the village, the court heard.
The trust, which has offered mental health and addiction counselling services for many years, operated an art studio facility on Taniwha St.
Long-time friends Burgess and Phillips were enrolled with Turning Point Trust and used the art studio facility on a regular drop-in basis.
Opposite the art studio was a timber-framed house used as a drop-in centre for Rainbow Youth and Gender Dynamix, offering mentoring and support to the LGBTQ and non-binary communities.
Both Burgess and Phillips decided to light a fire next to the Rainbow Youth building and placed the wheelie bin against the house.
Burgess grabbed a partly full bottle of mineral turpentine found inside a rubbish bin used by The Men’s Shed and placed it beside the wheelie bin.
He then collected several armfuls of clothing from a large plastic bin beside the Turning Point centre, and put the clothing in the wheelie bin.
One of the two men poured turpentine over the clothing and set it alight.
The lit bin was then placed hard up against the house, which caught fire and was completely destroyed.
Both offenders left the village but Burgess returned sometime later to check on the progress of the fire, leaving again before the fire service arrived.
Most of the pair’s actions were captured on CCTV security footage but not the actual lighting of the fire. Burgess and Phillips blamed each other for being the firestarter, the summary said.
When the police spoke to Burgess on July 1, he admitted participating in the arson but claimed he was told to do it by Phillips and got involved because he was going to be given $100. He also said Phillips told him, “that will teach them for being gay.”
Phillips was interviewed by the police on July 6. He admitted planning the arson with Burgess and being the person captured on CCTV footage with the wheelie bin.
Phillips claimed to the police that Burgess, using a homophobic slur, said to him, “he was going to burn those ******* to the ground.”
Phillips also said that he “held no ill feelings” towards the Rainbow community.
The destroyed building was insured for $200,000 and no decision has been made about rebuilding the house on the site.
So far, the council has incurred in excess of $69,000 to remediate the site, the court heard.
After the hearing, Gender Dynamix board chairwoman Maddie Stubbins told the Bay of Plenty Times its staff had participated in the restorative justice meeting, and had “faith” the sentences were appropriate.
“We sincerely hope that the individuals will receive help and support to be valuable members of the community and are overwhelmed and appreciative of the support that the community has provided Gender Dynamix during this challenging time.”
Rainbow Youth executive director Pooja Subramanian said the words described in the summary of facts were “really hurtful”. “Our main focus now is on healing and making sure our members and those in the wider community get the support they need.”
Tauranga pride advocate Gordy Lockhart said he was “absolutely appalled” by the “hurtful” comments Burgess and Phillips made to the police. He said the loss of the building — “a place of safety, support, acceptance and tolerance” — had “devastating” impacts.
“For someone to just come along and destroy that space has been gutting...
“While these two men have mental health difficulties that, in my view, is not an excuse.”