Vancouver police search for suspect, victim after homeless woman's blankets set on fire while she slept

Published Jan. 12, 2021 3:09 p.m. ET
Updated Jan. 12, 2021 10:48 p.m. ET

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VANCOUVER -- Vancouver police are looking for the public's help to track down a suspect after a homeless woman's blankets were set on fire while she was sleeping.

The arson happened on Dec. 13 around 4 a.m. In a news release, Sgt. Steve Addison said luckily the woman woke up just in time.

"The fire smouldered for several minutes before fully engulfing her, and lighting her blankets on fire" he said.

Security video released by the police showed a man wearing what's described as a "unique black and white Oakland Raiders jacket" approach the victim, who was sleeping on Hamilton Street near the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

The video shows him crouched down, and then a bright flame appears before he walks away. In a subsequent image from the video, the flames have grown much larger and the woman is seen walking around the fire.

"(It) does not appear that she had serious physical injuries, but we haven't been able to locate her yet," Addison said.

"Obviously this is a shocking and despicable assault that occurred against a vulnerable and marginalized member of our community, and we really would like to speak to anybody that has any information."

Addison said ultimately the Vancouver Fire Department attended and put out what remained of the fire, although at that point the victim had left. He did not know how the fire department was contacted.

The attack came to the attention of police after a security guard noticed some charred debris at around 9 a.m. and reviewed the security video. 

Police said the woman has not reported the incident to police, but they are hoping to speak to her. They described her as being in her 30s, with dark shoulder-length hair. At the time, she was wearing a grey, full-length button-up jacket. 

They said the suspect is white, between 35 and 50 years old, between 5'5" and 5'10".

"He did pace around her for some time before deliberately lighting her belongings on fire," Addison said, and added afterwards the suspect appeared to walk away with a basket of the woman's belongings. 

"It appears that he went to a nearby building or vestibule and sorted through those belongings."

Addison said the arson attack is being made public now because investigators have not been able to identify the people involved. 

Union Gospel Mission spokesperson Jeremy Hunka called the attack "unthinkably heartbreaking".

“To be treated like this, alone and vulnerable,” he said. “It’s almost inconceivable.”

Hunka said while what happened is shocking, it is not surprising. 

“It needs to be a wake-up call for us, we need to act with greater urgency to give people housing,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine what she’s feeling, and how unsafe she must feel in our city right now, and that’s really scary.” 

He added when these types of things happen, it can also make it less likely for victims to reach out for help. 

Anyone with information is asked to call the Major Crime Section at 604-717-2541 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-669-8477.  

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