Lac-Megantic: accused freed after arraignment

Three men arrested in the Lac-Megantic train disaster were released Tuesday after being arraigned on 47 charges of criminal negligence causing death.

LAC-MEGANTIC, Que. — Three men arrested in the Lac-Megantic train disaster were released Tuesday after being arraigned on 47 charges of criminal negligence causing death.

Thomas Harding, Jean Demaitre and Richard Labrie each had to post $15,000 bail after appearing in a makeshift courtroom in Lac-Megantic.

They were then freed on various conditions pending their next court appearance on Sept. 11. They can’t change their address and can’t work in the rail industry without proper supervision.

Forty-seven people were killed after a runaway train carrying crude oil derailed in Lac-Megantic in the wee hours of last July 6 before it exploded.

Harding had completed his shift as the train’s engineer earlier that evening and left the train unattended to sleep at a local inn.

The Crown has identified Labrie, 55, as the railway traffic controller and Demaitre, 50, as the manager of train operations.

The insolvent Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway faces the same criminal charges.

Earlier on Tuesday, Harding’s lawyer blasted as “brutal” the manner in which they stormed into his client’s residence to arrest him.

“It was the kind of arrest you would do for some heavily armed Hells Angel,” Thomas Walsh told The Canadian Press.

“Basically, the whole SWAT squad was there to arrest one guy who has been living in the same place since this tragedy happened.”

Walsh said Harding had been willing since last summer to appear in court voluntarily if the Crown ever decided to charge him.

“They are just killing a mouse with a cannon,” Walsh said. “I don’t know what the purpose of it was but it was totally unnecessary.”

A conviction on charges of criminal negligence causing death carries a maximum life sentence.

Crown spokesman Rene Verret said the arrests took place without incident — an assertion that Walsh disputed, at least in Harding’s case.

“He was out fixing his boat and his son was out there and a friend of the family,” Walsh said. “And these guys arrived like gangbusters, sirens absolutely wailing. apparently.

“That reflects a certain attitude, which they like to think of as a hard-boiled attitude and I like to think of as a very juvenile attitude. You get hard-boiled when there’s someone you have to get hard-boiled with. Otherwise, you’re just playing cops and robbers.”

Walsh said he hopes any future trial is held in Lac-Megantic.

“I feel that the people of Lac-Megantic should be the people who try those who are accused,” the lawyer said. “As a matter of human justice, if you will.”

Verret said prosecutors decided to file these charges after an analysis of the police evidence.

But they might not be the only ones charged. The Crown is still examining the file.

“Nothing is closed,” Verret said. “Today, we are able to bring charges against these individuals.”

The MM&A railway company is in the process of being sold. In January, bankruptcy judges in Quebec and Maine approved the sale of the insolvent railway to Railroad Acquisition Holdings LLC, an affiliate of New York-based Fortress Investment Group, for US$14.25 million. The deal has not yet closed.

The deadly crash raised questions about the transport of hazardous goods through towns in both Canada and the United States. The tragedy has also spurred several changes to procedure and policy.

Train service in Lac-Megantic was restored in December. Some of the region’s biggest employers depend heavily on the railroad to transport goods.

The MMA, which operates about 770 kilometres of track in Maine, Vermont and Quebec, agreed not to transport dangerous goods through the town.

Several civil suits have been filed, but the criminal charges mark a first.

The tragedy is still very real for many in the community.

Karine Blanchette, an employee of the Musi-Cafe, the establishment in the heart of town where many people died, lost many friends and colleagues and says nothing can erase memories of the tragedy.

“That there are criminal charges, I think it’s important,” she said. “Finally, there’s justice. But it does not bring back the people we lost and our heritage. The pollution in our environment will also remain.”

She believes authorities are not doing enough to prevent another such tragedy from happening in Quebec.

“Even if people are sick of hearing about Lac-Megantic, I want Quebecers to know that what happened can still take place just about anywhere,” Blanchette said. “Citizens must speak out against hazardous materials passing through the middle of their town.”

Federal Transport Minister Lisa Raitt was asked about the arrests as she announced changes to legislation and regulations on oil tanker safety.

“It’s going to be a tough time for the people of Lac-Megantic now that the charges have been laid, because they’re going to be thinking about it again,” she said in Saint John, N.B., on Tuesday.

“The matter’s before the courts but we always said that if rules have been broken and laws have been broken, we do expect people to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

— With files from Peter Rakobowchuk in Montreal

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