A Bamfield man described as being mentally ill has been sentenced to two 20 month concurrent sentences in prison for stealing 35 cars in a one-year period.
Judge Eldon Iverson further sentenced Richard Zoet, 54, to three years probation in Port Alberni Provincial Court on Tuesday.
Zoet was lead from the courtroom through the side corridor for prisoners. An older woman, later described as Zoet’s mother, tried to give him his jacket before he left.
Provincial prosecutor Todd Patola asked for a two-year prison sentence in a federal institution where Zoet would have access to treatment programs.
Defense lawyer Charles Beckingham asked for a conditional sentence based on Zoet’s lack of criminal history, as well admitting to what he did and cooperating with authorities when confronted.
Iverson weighed Zoet’s rehabilitation against the protection of others in his sentence. “These circumstances would not be enough to deter,” Iverson said of a conditional sentence. “I must place emphasis on deterrence.”
In his statement of facts to the court, Patola outlined several of the 35 offences, all of which took place in Bamfield between 2010-2011.
All of the vehicle thefts were from tourists and occurred at the entrance to the West Coast Trail. Tourists were from as far away as Alberta and Kansas, and from the Lower Mainland.
The thefts began in May 2010 and followed a similar pattern: the owners would return from the trail to find their vehicles and belongings gone. The stolen property ranged from camping equipment and clothing to laptops and GPS systems.
One man reported a St. Christopher medal he received for saving someone’s life as among the belongings he had stolen. Another family from Washington State had trouble returning home because Zoet stole their passports.
Stranded in Bamfield after their cars were stolen, the tourists were forced to find and pay for other means of transportation home then were left to haggle with their insurance companies and ICBC for replacement or repair costs.
“To characterize this as an inconvenience is a drastic understatement,” Patola said.
The vehicles and some property were often found at either the Bamfield Marine Science Centre, where Zoet worked, or discarded along logging roads and in gravel pits.
Zoet targeted vulnerable people who were far from home who had no access to services or support. Zoet “…has little if any insight into consequences,” Patola said.
The RCMP installed $5,000 worth of surveillance cameras in the area where the thefts occurred but Zoet stole those too and discarded the memory cards, Patola said. Zoet didn’t find all the cameras though, and his image and other thefts were recorded on the cameras that were left.
Zoet stole and drove other people’s vehicles rather than driving about in one of the six cars that he owned, Patola said.
The courts reports about Zoet paint a picture of a stable and employed man with a family, so why would he throw it away, Beckingham posed.
“The reality is that he is a conflicted and miserable man with financial stress and social stress….,” he added. “The only explanation I can offer is that he was mentally ill.”
Zoet took cars to drive around often at night after waking up in a panic, Beckingham said.
Zoet was subsequently diagnosed with a mental illness, since which time has been treated with medication and “…the behaviour has stopped,” Beckingham said.
The most aggravating circumstance is the repetitiveness of the offences. “That is the sole reason the crown is asking for jail,” he said.
In asking for the conditional sentence, Beckingham said that “Making him better, that would be the best thing the community could achieve.”
The victims were severely impacted, Iverson said. They lost passports and valuables, and the total cost of damage was estimated to be $50,000 not including insurance and ICBC, Iverson said.
Zoet isn’t without treatment options. “His rehabilitation can continue in jail,” Iverson said. “I must consider the totality of this.”