Sokaluk sentence shock

THE pain and anguish of the past three years has come flooding back to Black Saturday survivor Shirley Gibson after a “shock” sentence was handed down to convicted arsonist Brendan Sokaluk on Friday.

Supreme Court Judge Justice Paul Coghlan showed leniency for the autistic 42 year-old Sokaluk and sentenced him to 17 years and nine months for 10 counts of arson causing death.

In handing down his decision, the judge ruled Sokaluk must serve at least 14 years without parole, adding he had already served about three years.

Mrs Gibson’s sons, experienced fire fighters Colin, 49, and David, 47, were defending their parents’ property in Hazelwood South.

They were caught at the property when the wind changed about 6.15pm on 7 February 2009.

The remains of the brothers were found inside the burned-down house.

“I am glad it is all over. I feel a sense of relief but it will never be the same again without my boys,” Mrs Gibson said.

Astonished at the length of the prison term, she said “I thought (the police) wanted to throw the book at him”.

“I don’t think it is enough; it should have been at least 25 years but I have lost my sons so maybe I feel vengeful,” she said.

Mrs Gibson said the night before the sentencing was a sleepless evening, watching television to distract her from the pending decision.

“I got up (Friday) morning and walked the dog; I haven’t taken any anti-depressants so I find walking is the only thing that makes me feel better,” she said.

“At this stage I don’t know if this will bring closure but I hope it will; I have been thinking all along that when it is over I hope I feel better.”

Sokaluk, who has autism spectrum disorder and an intellectual disability, lit two fires near Jelleff Outlet, to the south of Glendonald Road, Churchill.

Traralgon South and District Association president Ange Gordon said she was “appalled” by the sentencing.

“It’s an absolute disgrace for the devastation he’s caused… to the community, for the families and the physical damage to the environment,” Ms Gordon said.

“He was a catalyst for many families’ breakdowns.”

“The number of hours people have had to put out from their lives to recover from his one event.

“I can’t imagine him getting out in 14 years; that’s just one year or so per person he’s murdered, it’s appalling.”

Ms Gordon said the victims of the fire were not accounted for in the sentencing.

“I can’t even begin to comprehend what those families are thinking or those volunteers who put in thousands of hours to help rebuild the community again,” she said.

“He should have been handed down a sentence that matched his crimes… I just can’t imagine what’s going through the poor families’ minds, it would be reliving their trauma, I feel sick in my stomach just thinking about it.

“He should be locked away and forgotten forever.”

Ms Gordon said families of the deceased attended the trial with a pre-conceived notion he would be sentenced to minimum of 25 years imprisonment.

However, Justice Coghlan said he accepted Sokluk did not intend to kill when he lit the deadly blaze.

The judge said he took Sokaluk’s autism into account when setting the jail term and that the the sentence “did not put a value on life”.

On Black Saturday temperature in the Latrobe Valley on Black Saturday reached 46 degrees celsius and wind gusts reached 70 kilometres per hour.

Ten people were killed, more than 150 homes were razed and 36,000 hectares of land were destroyed in the inferno.

Those who lost their lives locally during the Black Saturday fires included Nathan Charles, Fred Frendo, Scott Frendo, Colin Gibson, David Gibson, Alan Jacobs, Miros Jacobs, Luke Jacobs, Annette Leatham, Gertrude Martin and Martin Schulz.