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Fate of Richard Taylor, charged in arson deaths of mom and stepdad, now up to the jury

Did Richard Taylor burn his mother and stepfather alive to get over $400,000 worth of inheritance money, or did an unknown person ignite the couple’s Dundas, Ont., home while Taylor was at his own house sound asleep after putting his son to bed?

Those are the questions a jury will be scrutinizing after Taylor’s weeks-long murder trial at the Hamilton Courthouse wrapped up Monday with closing arguments.

It’s been nearly four years since Carla and Alan Rutherford died in a fire that was determined to be arson. 

In a nearly full courtroom, Ontario Superior Court Justice Toni Skarica and jurors heard the Crown and defence lawyers’ final arguments.

Taylor has pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. His trial began in mid-May.

On Monday, Crown prosecutor Janet Booy painted a picture of a man who had spent years lying to loved ones about the true extent of his financial struggles, arguing Taylor plotted to kill the Rutherfords in a last-ditch effort to end his debt and spare his pride.

On the other hand, defence lawyer Jennifer Penman said that while Taylor was a “financial disaster” and lied about it, he had enough money to pay off his debts, but wasn’t in a rush to do so, and loved his family too much to commit the crime.

In his final moments, stepdad accuses ‘Rich’

On July 9, 2018, at roughly 3:30 a.m. ET, a fire erupted at the single-storey home on Greening Court.

Booy argued Taylor quietly entered the home using a spare key before getting to the master bedroom, poured petroleum around the bed the Rutherfords were sleeping in and ignited it from the doorway with a match. He then ran out of the house, according to the lawyer. 

Flames engulfed the room and the doorway, forcing Alan to escape out the bedroom window, Booy said.

Despite almost all of his body being burned, the 63-year-old tried to get back into the home to try to save his wife and two dogs, court heard. He managed to spare one canine.

Alan and Carla Rutherford, 63 and 64, respectively, suffered severe burns and later died after the July 9, 2018, fire that erupted at their single-storey home on Greening Court in Dundas, Ont. (Hamilton Police Service)

“He’s the hero of this tragedy,” Booy said.

After Alan escaped again, he approached his neighbours and told them he tried to save Carla but she was still inside — and he blamed the blaze on his stepson, the jury was told.

“Alan is literally on death’s doorstep … he knows he’s going to die and his last breath, he tells you who did it. He tells you, ‘It’s Rich.’ Those are powerful words,” Booy said.

Booy said Alan, who died in the hospital that afternoon, also told paramedics he believed money was the motivation behind the fire.

Firefighters got Carla out of the home, but the 64-year-old died on the way to hospital.

No forensic evidence ties Taylor to scene

Defence lawyer Jennifer Penman disputed Booy’s version of the events that day.

She said Taylor wasn’t at the couple’s home — he was at home sleeping with his family. Penman highlighted there’s no forensic evidence that ties him to the scene, and the scenario Booy outlined is circumstantial.

Penman also said there was an open window in the basement that, while small, could have been used to enter the home.

As well, she spoke about the sleeping arrangements of the Rutherfords to back her argument that Taylor wasn’t behind the arson. For Taylor to get an inheritance, Alan and Carla would both have to die.

Penman argued Alan and Carla were sleeping in separate bedrooms because Carla had fewer burns, but only the master bedroom where Alan was sleeping was set ablaze.

With that, she argued, it wouldn’t make sense for Taylor to be the arsonist because if his mom had survived, he wouldn’t have access to the inheritance.

Penman also pointed out that Taylor had no burns and never smelled of smoke.

Penman believes Taylor’s money issues may have made him a target for being accused of the arson. Court also heard that Alan told some people Taylor’s father, Rick, was the person behind the fire, and not Richard, she said.

Booy countered Penman’s points, saying Carla was in the same room as Alan but woke up later, pointing to trace amounts of muscle relaxants and sleeping medication in her system.

From there, Booy said, Carla was surrounded by flames and burst through the front door before crawling toward the spare bedroom. The lawyer said Taylor’s mother was found by firefighters with her head facing the spare room, and that would indicate she was crawling toward it.

Booy also noted the spare bedroom had little to no fire damage, and if Carla had been sleeping there, she may have suffered fewer burns.

Regarding the basement window, Booy said it’s unclear when it was opened. She pointed to its small size and said bottles beside the window were undisturbed.

Responding to Alan reportedly accusing both Rich and Rick as the arsonists, Booy said only one person (a witness at the trial) heard the name Rick. She also said only one witness attested to the parents sleeping separately.

Booy said some contradiction among people at the scene is “completely natural” given the circumstances.

Taylor’s history of debt and dishonesty

Both the Crown and defence acknowledged Taylor lied to his friends and family about the extent of his debt, which was over $100,000.

The Crown said the financial deception included giving his wife forged bank statements and initially lying to police about what he owed.

Booy argued that while he had multiple avenues to eliminate his debt, he kept lying to protect his pride.

The defence said he lied to avoid stressing his family and Taylor would eventually pay off debts, but just left them to the last minute.

The defence said that when Taylor did get some of the inheritance money, he didn’t pay off his debts or estate fees.

Rather than use some of the inheritance money he did receive to pay off his debts or estate fees, which would have resulted in him getting even more of his inheritance, he blew it all on other stuff, said Penman.

“It’s not normal for most people, but was normal for him.”

The fire was so intense, part of the roof of the home collapsed. (Tony Smyth/CBC)

The Crown also highlighted how Taylor exaggerated a knee injury the day before the fire, playing videos in court that appear to show him only using crutches around police.

He lied to officers, saying he couldn’t have committed the arson because he couldn’t drive or walk down stairs with the injury, the jury was told.

The defence, however, said medical records show his knee had swelling from falling down a set of stairs at his mother’s home.

Penman also said he was taking medication, icing his leg and walking slower than normal, which could explain why in some videos he had no crutches or less of a limp.

In response to his lie to police about his injury, Penman said it was an impulsive decision he made in the moment trying to defend himself.

Penman pointed to Taylor choosing to testify before the jury earlier in the trial when he didn’t need to, and laid out why the jury could trust him: “The weeks of this trial have exposed everything that has been going on in his life … he pointedly said if he lies to you, members of the jury, his life is over.”

The jury is expected to start deliberating on Wednesday.



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