2 min

Did “gay panic” spark blaze at Winnipeg bathhouse?

Alleged arsonist was "tricked" into having sex with another man, says friend

A friend of one of the two men who died in a Winnipeg bathhouse fire says he doesn’t believe the alleged arsonist’s excuse — that the accused man started the fire because he was “tricked” into having sex with another man.

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” says Bert Royer, whose friend Gene Clark died in the blaze at Aquarius Spa on Oct 11. “(The alleged arsonist) knew what he was doing.”

Justin Rosdobutko, a 25-year-old factory worker, is facing two counts of manslaughter in connection with the fire, which happened during one of Aquarius’ co-ed nights. A friend of Rosdobutko who went with him to the bathhouse told the Winnipeg Free Press that Rosdobutko was “upset” that he had sex with a drag queen, thinking that it was really a woman.

“I guess anybody would be upset by that,” Rosdobutko’s friend told the Free Press, on condition of anonymity.

Says Royer: “I don’t buy that he didn’t know what he was doing. If you’re outed on a fire, that’s your problem.”

Marcia Ferreira, a trans woman who was also at the bathhouse that night, agrees with Royer. “How could (Rosdobutko) not know the difference between a drag queen and a woman?” she says.

SHOP TALK. Less than a month before his death, Steven Yablonski spoke to a student radio station about life as a young drag queen from a small prairie town. Watch the interview on YouTube here.

The other man who died in the fire, Steven Yablonski, went to the bathhouse that night in drag with some of his drag friends. Less than a month before his death, Yablonski did an interview with a student radio station in which the subject of mistaken identities came up.

“Have you ever come across a situation where a guy thought you were a girl and you had to let him down easy or hard?” asked the DJ, Sarah LaCroix.

Yablonski responded, “I’ve come across many guys that claim they’re straight and they want to sleep with (my drag alter ego) even though they know I’m actually a guy in drag. You just tell them that you’re not interested.”

Winnipeg police do not suspect the fire was a hate crime. The owner of the bathhouse, Chai Peng, says he doesn’t want to comment on that decision. “I never met (Rosdobutko) so I can’t say anything,” says Peng.

Yablonski was a 23-year-old drag queen from Winnipeg who worked at a Pizza Hut, while Clark was a 62-year-old welder and father of two from Regina. The men died in separate rooms at the bathhouse and didn’t know each other. It is not known whether they met Rosdobutko that night.

Clark’s friend Royer drove from Regina to Winnipeg to pick up Clark’s ashes. “It was a very long trip home considering the fact that I had Gene in the truck with me all the way,” says Royer. He says his friend was a “free spirit” who came and went as he pleased.

“I have no indication that he was gay,” says Royer.

Peng hopes to re-open his bathhouse by the end of the month and expects his regular customers to return. But Ferreira says she’s too afraid to go back. “No way,” she says. “Not after that night.”

Rosdobutko’s uncle told Winnipeg media that his nephew, who has a five-year-old daughter, dreamed of becoming a firefighter. Rosdobutko has been denied bail while he waits for his trial, expected sometime next year.