Decision in firefighter 'dish fight' trial expected in August

It's now up to a judge to decide whether a physical scuffle over the dinner dishes at an Ottawa fire station nearly two years ago was a consensual, ritualistic contest between two rookie firefighters that got out of hand, or a violent, hate-motivated assault that their captain tried to keep quiet.

Lawyers for former firefighter Eric Einagel and Capt. Greg Wright wrapped up their closing submissions Thursday as the trial reconvened following a month-long hiatus.

Einagel is charged with assault by choking and assault causing bodily harm. Wright is accused of threatening to discipline the complainant, Ash Weaver, to prevent them from reporting the incident that unfolded on Sept. 14, 2022, at Station 47 on Greenbank Road in Barrhaven.

Throughout the trial, these physical battles between rookie firefighters for the "right" to perform menial chores such as washing dishes or mopping floors have been portrayed as a sort of rite of passage around Ottawa's fire halls. Six months after the incident at Station 47, however, Deputy Chief Dave Matschke issued an order to end the custom.

Weaver, who is openly non-binary, testified earlier that Einagel choked them with both hands during their altercation at the fire station's kitchen sink, lifted them off the ground and smashed their head into the countertop. They also claimed that over the six weeks they worked together at Station 47, Einagel routinely questioned their gender identity and told them they didn't belong because of who they are.

Former firefighter Eric Einagel, at far right, walks with members of his legal team outside the Ottawa Courthouse on May 8, 2024.
Einagel, right, approaches the Ottawa Courthouse alongside lawyers Dominic Lamb, centre, and Jonathan Nadler, left, on May 8, 2024. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

'Mutual and consensual'

Einagel's lawyer Dominic Lamb urged Justice Mitchell Hoffman to reject that version of events and find his client not guilty.

Describing the scuffle as "a mutual and consensual back and forth," Lamb pointed to a strikingly similar incident involving the two rookies weeks earlier. The difference that time, Lamb said, was that Weaver had come out on top and won the right to wash the dishes while Einagel dried.

"The rules of that game were set in the previous dish fight," Lamb said.

Weaver was a reticent and unreliable witness who wove a "fantastical story" for the court, Lamb said, noting very little of the evidence provided by other witnesses supported Weaver's claims about what Einagel had said and done before, during and after the altercation at the sink.

"Everything they said was fundamentally at odds with all the other evidence you heard in this case," Lamb said.

Nor had Einagel ever shown "any antipathy of any kind" toward the 2SLGBTQ+ community, Lamb said, pointing to earlier testimony from character witnesses including the wife of Einagel's sister and a former colleague in Alberta who is transgender.

Ottawa firefighter Ash Weaver, right, walks with Sgt. Ali Toghrol of the Ottawa Police Service's hate and bias crime unit near the Ottawa Courthouse on May 8, 2024.
Ash Weaver, right, walks with Sgt. Ali Toghrol of the Ottawa Police Service's hate and bias crime unit toward the Ottawa Courthouse on May 8, 2024. (Patrick Louiseize/CBC)

Lawyer rejects choking charge

As for the alleged choking, Lamb said any contact between Einagel's hand and Weaver's neck was "incidental and accidental."

The Crown's first witness, firefighter Megan Hills, testified earlier in the trial that she saw Einagel's right hand on Weaver's throat, but only for a second. Hills corroborated very few of Weaver's other claims, Lamb pointed out.

"The allegations before the court are categorically false," he concluded. "There is no hate crime element to this, and there is no assault."

Wright's lawyer Joshua Clarke also urged Hoffman to reject the allegation against his client.

Clarke argued it's "entirely plausible" that Wright, whose back was turned while he chatted with another firefighter, neither saw nor heard any part of the brief scuffle at the kitchen sink.

Clarke portrayed the captain as a kind, gentle and fatherly leader who readily welcomed the non-binary rookie onto his crew and had nothing to gain from keeping the incident quiet. He also rejected Weaver's account of a conversation in a utility closet during which the alleged threat took place, repeating Lamb's suggestion that Weaver was an unreliable witness.

"If it's not dishonesty it's exaggeration ... which amounts to the same thing: It amounts to carelessness with the truth," Clarke said.

This photo shows the kitchen area at Fire Station 47 where the alleged assault occurred. It was taken by Ottawa police during their investigation into the incident and entered along with more photos of the station as an exhibit at the trial of former firefighter Eric Einagel and Capt. Greg Wright.
This photo shows the kitchen area at Station 47 where the alleged assault occurred. It was taken by Ottawa police during their investigation into the incident. (Ottawa Police Service)

Witness's evidence key, Crown says

When closing submissions resumed on Friday, assistant Crown attorney Sonia Beauchamp focused heavily on the testimony of Megan Hills, who was standing beside Weaver during the altercation on Sept. 14, 2022, and had an unobstructed view of what unfolded at the kitchen sink.

Describing Hills's testimony as "detailed, logical [and] consistent," Beauchamp said it provided "proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Einagel choked or strangled the complainant."

Firefighter Megan Hills drew this diagram showing her recollection of the position of Einagel's hand on Weaver's neck. The drawing was entered as an exhibit in court on Tuesday.
Firefighter Megan Hills drew this diagram showing her recollection of the position of Einagel's hand on Weaver's neck. The sketch 'speaks volumes' and is a key piece of evidence in the trial, Crown lawyer Sonia Beauchamp said Friday. (Megan Hills)

That evidence included a sketch showing Einagel's hand wrapped around Weaver's throat in what Beauchamp characterized as "an orchestrated manoeuvre" by Einagel to reach around Weaver's body and go "straight for the complainant's neck."

"One's hand does not just happen to end up around someone's neck in this manner without deliberate intent to do so, and intent to place force on the neck," Beauchamp said.

Hills also testified that Einagel didn't seem like himself during the altercation with Weaver, and appeared possessed by what she called a "red mist" of anger.

"Mr. Einagel was angry, and it's no coincidence that the anger boils over at that point, and that's when the choking happens," Beauchamp said.

Psychological harm

Regarding the charge of assault causing bodily harm, Beauchamp argued that can include psychological harm as well as physical injury.

She said it could also help explain Weaver's halting testimony and apparent reluctance to answer even the most straightforward questions put to them, leading to long pauses Hoffman called the most extreme he's encountered in his three and a half decades in the courtroom.

"[The pauses are] indicative of some type of psychological harm, not only from this event but from other experiences that this individual has faced," Beauchamp said.

This selfie taken Aug. 23, 2022, shows Eric Einagel in the passenger seat and Ash Weaver behind the wheel of a fire truck. The alleged assault at Station 47 occurred about three weeks later on Sept. 14, 2022.
This selfie taken Aug. 23, 2022, shows Einagel in the passenger seat and Weaver behind the wheel of a fire truck. The alleged assault at Station 47 occurred about three weeks later. (Submitted)

Beauchamp also levelled blame at Ottawa Fire Services and the workplace culture there.

"The Ottawa fire department's culture laid the groundwork for this entire incident to happen. It is a culture that not just condones but encourages ... their firefighters that physical fights are required to be part of the team," she said in her closing remarks.

As for Wright, Beachamp said his decision to wait until the crew's next shift the following Saturday to report the incident to his superiors shows he was eager to keep it under wraps.

"Alarm bells are going off, the cat's going to get out of the bag, and that's what propels him to report," she said. "He was hoping that it would stay in-house."

Clarke argued Wright made the call on Saturday because Weaver didn't show up for work that day.

Hoffman's decision regarding the charges against Einagel could boil down to whether he intended to place a hand on Weaver's neck.

Beauchamp conceded that if Hoffman finds there was no intent, Einagel should not be found guilty. Likewise, Lamb agreed that if Hoffman finds Einagel intentionally grabbed Weaver's neck and applied force, he should be found guilty.

Hoffman indicated Friday that he's aiming to render a decision in mid-August.