Wildfire suspect named as toll hits 189

February 16, 2009 10:21:26 AM PST
The only person accused of lighting one of Australia's deadly wildfires was a lonely Web-surfer who liked dogs, always said "G'day" to neighbors, and was trying to find love online. Brendan Sokaluk, a 39-year-old who reportedly once served as a volunteer fighter, was named as the suspect police arrested last week, as the death toll from the wildfires edged up to 189 on Monday.

Authorities were forced to keep Sokaluk at a secret location to protect him from potential reprisal attacks after a magistrate lifted a ban on publishing his name.

Sokaluk has been charged with one count of arson causing death and one of lighting a blaze that police said Monday killed 10 people. About 200 homes were destroyed in the fire, one of hundreds that blazed across Victoria state on Feb. 7 in Australia's' worst fire disaster.

"He was quiet. You wouldn't know if he was odd or not," said a neighbor, who did not want to be named out of sensitivity to Sokaluk's family. "He would say G'day when you passed him."

Neighbors say he kept to himself and lived alone. One said she thought he was strange because she once saw him watering his lawn in the rain.

"I told my kids to keep away from him," said the young mother, who did not want her name used so as not to draw attention to her street. "Two of my friends lost their houses in the fire. I don't know much about him but I'm glad he was caught."

Sokaluk's defense lawyer, Helen Spowart, argued in a hearing Monday that Sokaluk's identity should remain secret because of a heightened level of public anger and disgust over the case. She also raised concerns that her client's family could become a target of angry vigilantes.

"Those suspected of vigilantism would not be prevented from behaving in an abhorrent way simply by suppressing his name," said Magistrate John Klestadt.

Sokaluk did not attend the hearing and Spowart did not enter a plea on his behalf. He was ordered to remain in custody until another hearing May 26.

Victoria Police on Monday raised the death toll to 189 and said it would likely climb higher as forensic teams picked further through the ruins.

On the social networking Web site MySpace, Sokaluk describes himself as a lovelorn single man who's hoping to find a young wife. He writes that his hero is "mother earth with out her we all would be dead." He lists his occupation as "semi-retired" and describes himself as a "young happy male who wants to meet a young loven female to marrid."

Hate groups have already sprung up on Facebook. One called "Brendan Sokaluk, the Victorian Bushfires Arsonist, must burn in hell," attracted more than 3,500 members as of Monday night.

Sokaluk faces a maximum sentence of 25 years on a deadly arson charge, and 15 years for lighting a fire. He was also charged with possessing child pornography, which carries a five-year maximum sentence.

Experts say deadly arson in wildfire cases is difficult to prove, partly because different fires often join one another, making it tough to link a blaze set by an arsonist with one that eventually kills people. The Churchill fire was one such combination of blazes.

Police suspect arson in at least two other fires, but have ruled out foul play in the rest.

Nine Network television reported Sokaluk was a former volunteer firefighter.

Detailing a previously announced, high-level inquiry in to the disaster, Victorian Premier John Brumby said it would have the broadest terms possible, examining all aspects of the fires' causes and the preparedness of emergency services to respond. An initial report is due Aug. 17.

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