Chef at neighbouring restaurant sentenced to 2 years in ‘revenge arson’ that destroyed rural Manitoba hotel

Surveillance video captured Pelle Lambiase walking into the lone hotel in a small southeastern Manitoba community with a satchel, before he pulled out lighter fluid and a barbecue lighter and set the building on fire, a Winnipeg court heard this week. 

Lambiase, now 65, started the fire in an attached Canada Post outlet, and it spread quickly to the hotel, provincial court Judge Cynthia Devine said Tuesday, as she sentenced Lambiase to two years in prison for arson.

“The motivation was revenge,” Devine said at the sentencing. 

“He was angry at the owners of the hotel … for some argument and physical altercation between them and his friend,” who owned the restaurant in Rennie where Lambiase worked as a chef, Devine said.

Lambiase, who earlier pleaded guilty, confessed to police only after they showed him the surveillance video that he deliberately set the fire early on the morning of Dec. 8, 2022.

Court heard several people from Rennie, a community of about 120 people just west of Whiteshell Provincial Park, attended an earlier sentencing hearing, where they spoke about the loss of the hotel, which Devine noted “was a home, business and social hub for the community for approximately 80 years.”

Among those who spoke were members of the family who sold the hotel to newcomers to Rennie just 18 months before the fire, after the family had operated it since 1952, the judge said.

“The crime was shocking and has resulted in a huge social and community loss,” she said.

The hotel had been closed for more than a month before the fire, and wasn’t occupied at the time.

Court heard replacing the hotel, which was a total loss, would cost more than $6 million. Devine said the building was “underinsured,” so the loss to the new owners and mortgage holders on the property is significant.

Devine ordered restitution of $62,000 to cover the payments made by the new owners of the hotel to the previous owners.

Crown wanted 3-year sentence 

Lambiase told the court he was so intoxicated on opiates and alcohol at the time of the fire, “he did not remember he committed the arson until the police showed him surveillance video retrieved from the hotel three months later,” Devine said.

However, Devine didn’t accept that he “would not have had some idea of what he had done after lighting a fire with a toxic and redolent substance like lighter fluid.”

The Crown asked for a three-year prison sentence, while the defence asked the judge to consider a two-year sentence, or a conditional sentence order of two years less a day, followed by three years of supervised probation.

Devine said a non-custodial sentence “would only very rarely be appropriate for an arson offence,” which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years.

Despite a guilty plea and expressions of remorse, “the offence and motivation for the offence are just too serious and the message of denunciation for this arson must be clear and unequivocal,” Devine told the court.

Devine noted Lambiase’s serious but dated record includes a 2004 conviction for sexual assault, for which he was given a sentence of two years of probation.

He also had convictions for fraud under $5,000 in 1995 and several serious offences in 2002, which resulted in a three-year sentence for two counts of fraud over $5,000, breaking and entering, and theft.

The judge noted he had a difficult upbringing. He was born in Montreal to parents who emigrated from Italy in 1955 and ran restaurants in both Montreal and Winnipeg. His father was violent toward him and his late mother, court heard.

Devine told the court Lambiase has previously struggled with cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin use and abused prescription opiates for decades. He has quit using all non-prescription drugs for the past 15 months, the court heard.

Court heard he worked in and ran restaurants as a chef and cook his entire life, and has been volunteering as head chef at Agape Table, a meal program in Winnipeg.

Devine said while Lambiase was “admittedly intoxicated” at the time of the offence, being drunk and careless was not the motivation for the arson.

“He committed a revenge arson, and was neither mentally ill or someone without a criminal record,” she said.