A court lifted the ban on Monday on identifying the only arson suspect so far in Australia's recent deadly wildfires, and authorities urged people not to target him in their rage over the disaster's more than 180 deaths. The case of Brendan Sokaluk, a 39-year-old man accused of lighting one of hundreds of fires that swept southern Victoria state on Feb 7, went before a court packed with media and onlookers on Monday, but he chose to stay in police protective custody rather than attend.
Sokaluk was arrested on Friday and charged with one count of arson causing death and one of lighting a wildfire in connection to a blaze known as the Churchill fire. He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years on the first charge, and 15 years on the second. He was also charged with possessing child pornography, which carries a 5-year maximum sentence.
Extremely hot, dry and windy conditions on Feb 7 fanned dozens of fires into raging infernos that reduced entire towns to ashes. The confirmed death toll is 181 but is expected to exceed 200. More than 1,800 homes were destroyed and 7,500 people displaced. A police document presented to the court alleges that Sokaluk "intentionally and without lawful excuse" set fire to a timber plantation in southeastern Victoria state on Feb 7 and "did thereby commit arson causing the death of another person." The document did not name or give a number to the victims. Officials have said previously that the Churchill fire killed at least 21 people, though officials cited only 11 deaths in court. They did not immediately explain the discrepancy, but one reason could be that the charges are connected to just part of the fire. Experts say deadly arson in wildfire cases is difficult to prove, partly because different wildfires often join one another, making it tough to link a fire set by an arsonist with the blaze 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.
In Monday's brief hearing, defense lawyer Helen Spowart argued that Sokaluk's name should stay a secret because of an unusual level of public anger and disgust over the case. Prosecutor Chris Beale agreed there were strong community feelings against the suspect. Magistrate John Klestadt agreed to ban publication of photographs of Sokaluk or his address, but not his name.
"Those suspected of vigilantism would not be prevented from behaving in an abhorrent way simply by suppressing his name," Klestadt said.
Spowart did not enter a plea on Sokaluk's behalf. He was ordered to remain in custody until another hearing on May 26. Earlier Monday, Victoria Police Chief Christine Nixon said security around Sokaluk would be high, and urged people to let the justice system do its work.
"We hope that we don't have to deal with a gang of people who are angry and concerned about this arrest _ we know people are," Nixon told reporters. "We will make sure he is protected and can go before the justice system, as he should, and be dealt with through that process."
On a page appearing to belong to Sokaluk on the social networking Web site MySpace, he 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." He says he's a fan of country music and the television shows "CSI" and "Cops." Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was listed as one of Sokaluk's friends, but soon after the suspect's name became public, Rudd disappeared from the friend list.
A spokeswoman for the Victorian Country Fire Authority said the suspect charged in the Churchill fire may have been a volunteer firefighter 20 years ago. She spoke on condition of anonymity, citing policy, and declined to elaborate.
A Facebook group entitled "Brendan Sokaluk, the Victorian Bushfires Arsonist, must burn in hell" had already attracted more than 1,200 members by Monday morning.
Rudd announced a national day of mourning for fire victims will be held Sunday, with an official ceremony at the 14,820-capacity Australian Open tennis arena.
Officials said favorable weather conditions for the next few days will help control eight fires still burning out of control in Victoria.