A TEENAGER who used a homemade flamethrower to start a fire that gutted a Wroughton cottage insured for £1.3m has been given two years behind bars.
The 17-year-old boy, who was just 15 at the time of the blaze in 2019, appeared motionless in the dock as Judge Peter Crabtree sentenced him to a two-year detention and training order.
The judge told the boy, who cannot be named for legal reasons, said: “In my view the offence is simply too serious for any sentence other than an immediate custodial one.”
The owner of historic Brook House, Wroughton, which was destroyed in the inferno on March 29 last year, had earlier told Swindon Crown Court he and his wife had since moved away from the area. “We fear returning to the village knowing it was a local teenager who started the fire,” he said.
Prosecutor Hannah Squire told the crown court firefighters had been called to the Grade II listed cottage in The Pitchens on March 28 after the thatch caught alight. There was no suggestion that the defendant in the dock on Monday morning was responsible for that blaze.
The following day, the boy had been in nearby park Wier Field with his friend, playing with a lighter and deodorant aerosol can to create a makeshift flamethrower.
They were walking back from the park on a pathway running alongside the thatched cottage when the boy aimed the flamethrower down the path – catching the thatch and setting it alight.
The fire spread quickly, with the boy instructing his friend to call the fire brigade while he went door to door trying to alert neighbours.
Ms Squire said the homeowner and his wife were in the house at the time. “His wife had gone up to the bedroom. She could see flames on the roof. It was in the same place as the fire from the night before.”
The couple went outside, trying to use a hose to put out the flames while neighbours helped with buckets of water.
Damage to the house Pictures: CPS WESSEX
Up to 70 firefighters from four counties attended the blaze, but there was little they could do to save the house. Their focus shifted to trying to salvage property. The fire was said to have burned for around 36 hours.
In a fire report produced for the police, Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service Station Manager Dave Geddes said he believed it would have taken a “sustained application of a heat source” to ignite the thatch.
The boy later confessed what he’d done to a schoolfriend. Interviewed by police in July, he told detectives it had been an accident and he was “messing around with a lighter and aerosol”.
Reading his victim statement to the court, the former owner of Brook House said he and his wife had spent several years and around £250,000 renovating the historic cottage. Since the incident his wife had been treated for high blood pressure and both were extremely anxious of any potential fire risks, unplugging electrical devices. They had moved away from Wroughton. He said: “The fire has destroyed so much more than our home.”
The house in The Pitchens today Picture: DAVE COX
The boy admitted arson being reckless as to whether life and property was endangered at an earlier hearing.
Jason Coulter, mitigating, blamed the offending on “recklessness of youth – rather than a reckless youth”.
The lawyer added: “The defendant fully accepts that what he did by using the flamethrower on numerous occasions in the walkway amounted to recklessness.
“It is a relatively confined space; he simply didn’t take enough and sufficient care to ensure that what he was doing, which was perhaps relatively safe in the park environment, was anything but in the walkway. That is a life lesson that he has learnt the hard way ever since.”
Since the fire he had moved in with his paternal grandparents. Although no longer in school, he helped out them out with their businesses.
Mr Coulter asked the judge to follow the recommendation in a pre-sentence report and keep his client out of custody.
“He needs guidance. He needs a firm hand,” the lawyer said.
“And the worry, certainly as identified by the youth offending team and it’s a worry I echo also, is that by sending this defendant who is effectively or nearly of good character for one serious and severe mistake committed at the age of 15 to an environment with more seasoned criminals than him could be counter-productive. Whereas the community element would not be, in my submission.”
Judge Crabtree imposed a two-year detention and training order, with the boy expected to serve half of that in custody and the remainder on licence. He was not ordered to pay compensation.