'A strong message': Penticton man who detonated homemade bombs in parks and near elementary school sentenced to nine months behind bars

Park bomber heading to jail

A Penticton man who admitted to placing and detonating homemade bombs in public parks last spring has been sentenced to nine months behind bars.

Blair Robert Balch, 50, appeared in Penticton Provincial Court Monday before Judge Gregory Koturbash, having pleaded guilty to exploding multiple improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, in March 2021 that left the community shaken and scared.

On March 6 and 7, 2021, residents reported explosions in the early hours of the morning in King's Park. Police found explosive devices that had caused damage to the bleachers.

Then on March 8, 2021, at 11:30 p.m. multiple residents complained of hearing large explosions near Carmi Elementary School. An IED was found on an electrical junction box. The explosion of the IED did not damage the inner workings of the box, and no one was injured.

A specialized police unit was brought in and found consistency between the bombs, including a whip to release the device and crimping along the edges.

On March 11, a constable was conducting foot patrols when he found another homemade bomb just off the walking path near the Ellis Creek bed at Industrial Avenue East and Main Street.

This device was still intact, and police conducted a controlled explosion, along with another device found close by.

Local residents were shaken, and police hurried to find answers and assuage public fears.

After an investigation led to Balch, who has a lengthy criminal record spanning decades, RCMP released his photo and name to the media.

Balch then turned himself in and confessed to one IED explosion in King's Park, the Carmi explosion, and owned up to one IED left abandoned along Ellis Creek that he claimed was defective.

Police and Crown have been unable to definitively link him to other devices found and dealt with nearby along Ellis Creek on the same day, and a reported second explosion in King's Park.

Surveillance footage mentioned in court apparently captured Balch and a still-unknown other man biking away from the Ellis Creek scene. But Balch has maintained he operated alone, and detonated all his devices late at night on purpose to avoid people being hurt.

Crown counsel Kurt Froehlich asked for a total jail sentence of six to nine months for the explosives charges, citing a need for strong deterrence of such crimes.

Defence counsel James Pennington sought a conditional sentence, which would allow Balch to keep his subsidized housing in the community.

Balch told the court he is "sorry 1,000 times over," that his actions were "stupid," and he never meant to hurt anyone. At an earlier court date, he had said he wanted to hear how loud the explosions would be.

"I just don't want to lose my housing and I apologize for scaring the public ... I just don't want to go back to the joint," Balch said Monday.

Judge Koturbash noted Balch's compliance while out on bail since the bombs and his guilty plea, but ultimately decided the severity of the incidents, Balch's acknowledged unwillingness to address his alcohol and substance addictions and the fact he violated an already existing lifetime ban on possessing explosives when these incidents took place, warranted incarceration.

"He still does not appreciate the fear his actions caused," Koturbash said.

"At no point did he reflect and express any concern about the risks his actions posed to children. Children either impacted by the knowledge that a bomb was detonated near their school, or the risk that one of them could have come across an undetonated device."

Koturbash read a Castanet News article into the record that detailed increased security measures currently taking place at Carmi Elementary School. He said Balch's actions are not a direct cause of those new measures, but noted a need make it clear dangerous activity near schools will not be tolerated.

"The fact that the school has had to take such extreme measures speaks volumes about the consequences that result from people engaging in unsavoury and criminal behaviour near schools or other places where children go," he said.

Koturbash also scolded Balch for tying up RCMP resources.

"Bomb disposal officers are an extremely rare commodity and when pulled to locations like Penticton to investigate over days incidents like this, they become less available to deal with other potentially urgent matters in the province," he said.

Ultimately, Koturbash dismissed defence counsel's request for a conditional sentence served in the community, sentencing Balch to 270 days — roughly nine months — behind bars.

"A strong message must be sent to Mr. Balch that wading back into his criminal lifestyle will not be tolerated, and an even stronger message to others engaging in criminal activity in places near schools, parks and playgrounds that risk both physical and psychological harm to our children will be met with severe consequences," Koturbash said.

"Mr. Balch has returned to crime with a significant transgression. It constitutes a serious violation of his obligation to the court to follow its orders, and his commitment to society not to engage in criminal activity."

He noted that jail may be a useful time for Balch to assess his lifestyle.

"Mr. Balch is steadfast in his position that he does not need counselling, nor that it's necessary for him to stop consuming alcohol and illicit drugs. He's been on probation for most of his adult life. I see little utility in expending further resources and taxpayers dollars, which are better served on people who actually want to make a change," Koturbash said.

"If Mr. Balch has an epiphany while serving his jail sentence, all of those resources will be available to him free of charge."

More Penticton News