Cameras catch alleged Nanaimo arsonist tampering with car minutes before it explodes

Cameras catch alleged Nanaimo arsonist tampering with car minutes before it explodes
Courtesy Pure Gold Automotive
Surveillance video at a Nanaimo auto repair shop shows a man RCMP are calling a suspected arsonist as he tampers with a vehicle that later catches fire and explodes. March 20, 2023.

Surveillance footage obtained by CHEK News shows a shockingly brazen case of alleged arson play out in real time at a Nanaimo auto repair shop.

Cameras stationed in the lot of Pure Gold Automotive, at Bastion Street and Wallace Drive, captured the suspected arsonist smashing a car window and later placing what police say was flammable material inside, causing the vehicle to catch fire and eventually explode.

The footage was shared by Zabrina Murphy, co-owner of the auto repair shop in the heart of downtown Nanaimo where the incident took place Monday at around 6 a.m.

Murphy said she received a call at 6:05 a.m. alerting her to the fire. When she arrived fire crews had put out the massive blaze but the car was a write-off. The vehicle had been undergoing an inspection, having been recently bought by nearby dealership Uptown Auto Sales, but Murphy had to inform her customer that only a charred wreck remained.

She and investigators reviewed the shop’s surveillance footage to piece together what happened, and the video captured couldn’t have been clearer.

In it, a hooded man police are calling the suspected arsonist can be seen walking around in the lot, in an area that Murphy said is visible from the Bastion Street Bridge, starting at 4:53 a.m.

“Well, the first thing in the video, he walks over to the corner, and it looks like he’s filling something with butane and he tries to open the fuel cap. But because that vehicle is, when the doors are locked, the fuel cap’s locked, so he can’t get in there,” Murphy recounted. “So he tried to get in there first, figured that he couldn’t, so he broke the window.”

Seven minutes later at 5 a.m., the man smashes the rear driver’s side window.

Then at 5:35 a.m. the man can be seen reaching his arm through the shattered window and depositing something in the back of the vehicle.

The arson suspect then starts to leave, doubles back and appears to look inside the car one last time before exiting the lot a final time at 5:36 p.m. A car is seen driving by moments later, but RCMP say there’s no indication that it was related to the incident in any way.

A minute later smoke begins to pour out of the front of the vehicle, and over the next 15 minutes, the fire builds, with flames shooting out of the windows, until a gas tank explosion rocks the lot at 5:52 a.m.

The force of the explosion was so powerful it smashed out one of the shop’s windows, Murphy said, but fortunately no one was in the building at the time.

She expressed frustration with recent crime in downtown Nanaimo, saying the fact that the arson occurred in such a brazen location suggests criminals are becoming less fearful of consequences.

“I mean, it’s depressing, and it’s frustrating, and it pisses me off, but there’s not really anything that I can do to stop it,” Murphy said. “Crime is getting so out of control because there are no repercussions. People can do whatever they want, whenever they want.”

Nanaimo RCMP say despite the high-quality video, police are still searching for the arson suspect, described as a man wearing dark clothing who was carrying a bag when he left the lot on the Bastion Street side.

“We’re not sure where he went to, but that area’s quite frequented by a lot of cars, especially at that time. Tim Hortons is just a block away from there,” said Nanaimo spokesperson Ret. Const. Gary O’Brien. “If anyone saw or heard anything, please give us a call.”

Anyone who may have witnessed something suspicious in the area at the time of the arson or knows more about what happened is asked to call RCMP at 250-754-2345.

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