MONTREAL - His name is forever connected with one of the worst crimes in Montreal’s history.
But time has dimmed the collective memory when it comes to the name James O’Brien, although those old enough will likely never forget the fire he helped set that resulted in the deaths of 37 people.
On Sept. 1, 1972, O’Brien, 22 at the time, and two other men, Gilles Eccles and Joseph Marc Boutin, were kicked out of a downtown bar. They returned later to the Blue Bird Café, on Union Ave. south of Ste. Catherine St., to douse the stairwell with gasoline and set it on fire.
The blaze killed 37 people in a country and western bar upstairs from the Blue Bird. Another 54 people were injured. The victims, including a girl as young as 14, died of asphyxiation or suffocation as they tried to escape the burning building.
Three months later, O’Brien and Boutin admitted to being drunk when they set the fire. They pleaded guilty to one count of second-degree murder and were sentenced to life, while Eccles eventually pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
When O’Brien entered his guilty plea in December 1972, he told the court: “We didn’t mean to kill anyone. We only wanted to scare the doorman” who had tossed them out.
All three were released on parole by 1983, but for years O’Brien continued to have problems with alcohol that put him back behind bars. The most recent instance came in 2008 after he was convicted of impaired driving. He had been unlawfully at large for nine months before his arrest.
O’Brien was granted day parole in May 2009, but until now the National Parole Board has been reluctant to grant him a full release while he continued to work on his dependence on alcohol.
According to a written summary of a decision made last week to grant him full parole, O’Brien, 61 and living in Montreal, has found a full-time job and has attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings regularly.
Psychological and psychiatric assessments have found O’Brien’s “anti-social acts were more consistent with a pattern of socio-affective maladjustment than a frankly anti-social structure. Nonetheless, you have taken the (lives) of 37 persons and, on multiple occasions, you have become a mortal danger to society as you have developed the habit of driving under the influence.”
When O’Brien is sober and behind bars, according to the parole board, his behaviour has “essentially been compliant and you have never been a person of particular concern to preventive security.”
As part of the conditions of his release, O’Brien must follow psychological counselling for six months. The two parole board members who heard his case were convinced this will help him manage the risk of reoffending by treating his drinking problem, the main factor in his criminality.
He is also not allowed to drive except for work-related purposes, and he is not allowed to be in bars.
Read it on Global News: Infamous Montreal arsonist granted full parole