North Devon man jailed for torching Bideford house
An arsonist has been jailed for starting a fire in Bideford which left four men trapped inside a burning building.
Neighbours and firefighters risked their own lives to save the men while drunken firestarter Samuel Oates staggered away clutching a can of lighter fluid.
He told police he would find their homes and burn them down when they arrested him near the burning house in South View Terrace, Exeter Crown Court was told.
The fire caused around £100,000 worth of damage and left two fellow residents in hospital and a third needing oxygen at the scene.
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All of the other four residents were left homeless. None had insurance and they all lost everything but the smoke-stained clothing they were wearing.
Homeless Oates, whose last permanent address was at Church Lane, Barnstaple, admitted arson being reckless whether life was endangered and was jailed for four years with a two year extended licence.
Judge Francis Gilbert, QC, told him: "You started a fire in a ground floor flat in a house which had four flats. You had been drinking and inhaling gas.
“The fire you set was in a living room and was extremely dangerous because you set it beside the door making it difficult for others to escape.
“You not only set the fire, you left the room leaving a person who was asleep in it to his fate. Others managed to get him out but at great risk to themselves.
“He woke up and managed to get himself out of the room but then passed out and others had to go in to save him. You also left two other people in that burning building.
“One had to be rescued by firefighters and two others were injured, one of them seriously and one needed be treated in intensive care afterwards.
“The occupants have lost a considerable amount of their own property and the building was left uninhabitable and needing repairs costing £100,000 to put it right.
“The victim impact statements made it clear there were very serious consequences for the other occupants, so this was a very serious fire.”
Mr Brian FitzHerbert, prosecuting, said Oates had been drinking and sniffing lighter fluid on the night of the fire in January and befriended one of the residents who allowed him to stay at the flats.
Fire experts believe he used some form of fuel either to start or spread the blaze although he later claimed it was caused by leaving a sock to dry on a heater.
The occupant of the ground floor flat Stephen Clucas suffered burns to his body as he escaped. One upstairs resident George Grahame made his own way out and another Stephen Brown suffered minor injuries as he tried to rescue the others.
The final occupant Anthony Riley, aged 63, was found naked and confused in the kitchen by firefighters.
Mr Clucas spent a week in intensive care and was released to find himself homeless and without all his belongings which had been burned in the fire and which were uninsured and worth around £5,000.
Mr Riley spent two days in North Devon District Hospital before being released but was still suffering from breathing problems a month later.
Mr Fitzherbert said neighbour Elizabeth Graham tried to detain Oates at the scene but he fought her off and fled.
He said: ”She made numerous attempts to hold him but he broke and was traced by police to Moreton Park Road where officers found him smelling of fire, with a soot blackened face spraying lighter fluid in his face.
“He was generally obstructive and when taken to hospital made reference to setting himself alight and wanting to die.
“He said he did not mind going to prison for arson and threatened the officers that he would find out where they lived and burn down their houses.”
Mr Fitzherbert said the others living at the house had all lost their homes and thousands of pounds worth of uninsured belongings and clothing.
Mr Richard Crabb, defending, said Oates had enjoyed a successful career as an engineer but had started abusing drink and drugs after giving up his job to return to Devon to look after his father, who later died.
He said he had received treatment for depression and alcohol abuse and spent time at a residential project in Surrey before leaving in December 2011 and moving back to Devon.
Mr Crabb said: "It is clear he was drinking heavily and taking butane gas. Witnesses described him as being completely out of it on the night of the fire.
“He does not know how the fire started but says he has always had an image of a glove, rather than a sock, falling onto an electric heater.”
He said Oates is a changed person since drying out in jail and is now a keen amateur artist who encourages other inmates to share his interest and works as a librarian.