On the night of March 25 this year, Edward Guy Mason, 57, went to his store in Bruce Rock, 240 kilometres east of Perth, packed three shopping trolleys with cardboard and set them on fire, before trying to take his own life. He then left the building and locked himself out, before walking home, where he was later arrested. Passers-by saw the fire and alerted authorities, but the supermarket and an adjoining hardware store, owned by Mason’s brother, were destroyed, causing more than $1 million damage.
COVID-obsessed Bruce Rock supermarket owner burnt down his own business to ‘keep customers safe’
Mason pleaded guilty to a charge of wilfully and unlawfully damaging a building by fire, with the District Court hearing that before he set fire to the supermarket he had smoked eight cannabis bongs.
Mason decided to ‘eradicate himself’
The court heard Mason’s mental health had been declining for about six months, but it was made worse because of the coronavirus pandemic, which had seen people from out-of-town panic buying toilet paper and hand sanitiser.
That was affecting his stock levels and customers were becoming angry and abusing him about items not being available, and also about the extra hygiene measures he had to put in place as a result of the pandemic.
His lawyer, Richard Lawson, said Mason then became convinced he had the virus, and to protect his customers and the public from getting infected he had to burn down his business, later repeatedly telling witnesses, “I set fire to business to kill the germs.”
“He decided he had to eradicate himself,” Mr Lawson said.
Mason has been in custody since his arrest on the night, and Mr Lawson said in those four months, his mental health had improved because he had resumed taking anti-depressant medication and was receiving counselling.
Judge John Prior said he had received 17 character references on behalf of Mason, who was described as “well liked and respected” in the Bruce Rock community where he was born and raised.
Judge Prior said most of the authors were shocked by what Mason had done, but did say in the lead up to the incident they had observed he was under immense pressure to maintain stock levels and keep his customers happy and safe.
The court heard he had run the supermarket for 28 years after inheriting the business from his parents, who had owned it for 50 years.
‘You wanted to keep people safe’: Judge
Judge Prior described Mason’s offence as very serious, saying the fire had caused substantial damage and put at risk other buildings and the safety of others in the town.
However, he described the case as “unusual”, saying he was satisfied the COVID pandemic had a “direct causal impact” on Mason’s behaviour.
“At the time, you had an obsession with COVID-19. It impacted on your grocery business. You believed you were infected. You wanted to keep people safe,” he said.
Judge Prior imposed a 16-month jail term but suspended it, noting that Mason had never committed any offence before, had spent four months in custody, had pleaded guilty at an early opportunity and was genuinely remorseful.
He also said the community of Bruce Rock was supportive of Mason and there was a real risk that any further time in custody might undermine the positive steps he had taken to rehabilitate himself.
However, Judge Prior did make an order that Mason pay his brother $479,000 to compensate him for the damage that was caused to the hardware store.
‘Surely there could be germs on these cartons’
Outside the court, Mason described what was happening in the lead up to the fire as “very bad.”
“I was running a business and just seeing my shelves stripped bare. It was very hard to deal with,” he said.
“People were driving 30 minutes from another town and they’d just come in and strip my shelves bare if their town was empty.
“That’s where all the conflict began, because my customers couldn’t understand why they couldn’t get their regular items.”
Mason said he was convinced he had coronavirus.
“Seeing different news reports and seeing how it could be transmitted and I thought, ‘we’re getting boxes coming out of the warehouses, boxes coming from China’, and that’s how I felt,” he said.
“I felt surely there could be germs on these cartons.”
He thanked those in the Bruce Rock community who had supported him and said he now planned to return to the town to “regroup and start again.”