CLARESHOLM, Alta. — Police say a British Columbia man is facing charges for allegedly impersonating a Fort McMurray evacuee and taking advantage of people who were trying to help.
The RCMP says it received a complaint from Family and Community Support Services in Claresholm, Alta., about a man and woman suspected of pretending to be among the wildfire evacuees.
Police allege the man travelled to Claresholm and "took advantage" of people who thought they were helping wildfire victims.
They say Darryl Rondeau, 45, of Victoria, B.C., has been charged with fraud under $5,000.
Kieth Carlson, owner of Roy's Place restaurant in Claresholm, said he wasn't surprised when police contacted him about the case. He said he was suspicious not long after a woman came into the restaurant asking for a job. She said she had fled the flames in Fort McMurray with only the clothes on her back.
"I said, 'I'm looking for cooks,' and she claimed she knew how to cook," Carlson said. "I said, 'Well, let's give you a job.'"
But he said when she returned later with her partner, she said she had a health issue, and the man was concerned that the stress she was going through might exacerbate it. She couldn't accept the job.
"When she didn't take the job and had a few excuses about everything, I just went, OK, they're not in that big of a need," Carlson said.
Despite his suspicions, Carlson invited the couple back to the restaurant that evening for a free meal. They ordered steaks, Carlson believes.
Carlson said they asked him to come out of the kitchen to thank him, but he sent word back to their table that he was busy and that it was no big deal.
RCMP allege the couple never actually lived in Fort McMurray and had no ties to Alberta. Police said while they were in Claresholm, townspeople provided them with a place to stay, clothes, meals and bought a pair of work boots.
"Small towns are very quick to provide assistance to those in need, sometimes without even questioning a lot. They trust," said Cpl. Barry Larocque.
"Sometimes that trust can be exploited."
The couple appeared in a story in the local newspaper, the Claresholm Local Press. They told the paper they saw their home catch fire and had planned on settling Lethbridge, but stopped in Claresholm and liked the reception they got.
Rondeau said he wasn't looking for a handout, the story stated.
He was arrested on May 15 and appeared in court last Monday. His next court appearance is June 1.
Police say no one else has been charged in the case, and that their investigation is continuing.
Carlson said he told police he wasn't interested in pressing charges. He's not sore about the steaks, either.
He said the ministry group in town knows that if a family is passing through and is stuck and hungry, the restaurants will help.
"Better to be a good person and help somebody out, and in the end, what's $20 of food at our cost to make sure that somebody's not hungry, right?"