A frail 88-year-old woman has told of her terror after thugs tried to burn her out of her home.
Eileen Hanna — who suffered a stroke two years ago and is receiving treatment for hearing problems — narrowly avoided death when the noise of smoke alarms alerted her to a blaze in the porch of her bungalow in Newcastle’s Ballaghbeg Park.
The attempt to set fire to the house where the vulnerable pensioner lives alone is the latest in a string of sickening attacks targeting elderly people in Northern Ireland.
Police — who are treating the blaze in the early hours of last Thursday morning as arson — believe that a flammable liquid was sprayed through the front door letter-box onto papers below and set alight.
But Eileen, who has no idea why she was targeted, has delivered a defiant message that she will not be leaving her home of 22 years.
Her family have described the attack as attempted murder.
“I was getting into bed before 5am and the fire alarm went off,” Eileen told the Belfast Telegraph.
“When I got to the door the tail end of the curtain was away up in flames and the lino was on fire too. I said to myself, ‘I will have to make a move’. I got a pot of water and threw it on it. I was on my walking stick.”
She added: “I do not know why they done it. It just must be badness.
“I just had to get over it. What else could I do?
“I will not be moving. It’s an awful bustle to move at this age.
“I am worried because the oil tank beside the house — what if that was set alight?”
Elaine and Judith Major, Ms Hanna’s great nieces, say they cannot understand the attack.
Their great aunt’s bungalow — situated at the end of a narrow path — backs on to a local GAA pitch. They said Ballaghbeg Park is a quiet area which has not suffered from anti-social problems in recent years.
They have described Eileen as a well-known character in Newcastle — whose first stay in hospital was two years ago. She hopes to celebrate her 90th birthday with a helicopter trip.
“People have been asking me if it was a mistaken address. But everyone knows Eileen and where she lives,” Elaine Major, who has been staying with her great-aunt since the incident, said.
“I cannot fathom someone having a grudge against her. I’m only wondering if she did see something or hear something that maybe she should not have.”
“I do not think she really recognises the significance of what happened. But we do. It could have been fatal.”
Judith Major added: “Eileen would not be one for ringing the police or the fire brigade. She rang me the morning it happened. She just kept shouting.. ‘paper, smoke, fire’.
“At the end of the day it was attempted murder. If it were not for the fire alarms she would not be here today.
“I was quite surprised she heard the alarms. She is hard of hearing.”
Police are appealing for information. A PSNI spokesman said: “Detectives in Downpatrick are appealing for information following the report of an arson attack at a house in the Ballaghbeg Park area.”
Alliance councillor for the area, Patrick Clarke, reiterated the appeal.
He said: “I’m totally at a loss as to why people would do that, particularly to a woman of that age.
“I would condemn the incident and I would also be very critical that a lady of that age was deliberately targeted.
“If anybody knows anything or did see anything I would ask them to report it to the police.”
Police have appealed to anyone who may have noticed anything suspicious in the area or who has any information about the incident to contact CID in Downpatrick on 0845 600 8000. Or contact the independent charity Crimestoppers and speak to police anonymously on 0800 555 111.
Pensioners afraid to answer the door after man’s ordeal
By Chris Kilpatrick
Elderly residents in south Belfast are living in fear that they will be attacked in their own homes, it has been claimed.
On Friday evening a 74-year-old man was left badly shaken after he was robbed at his house on Ashley Avenue, just off the Lisburn Road.
The man answered his front door to men claiming to be from the Water Board. When he requested identification he was bundled into the house while they ransacked the terraced property before making off with his phone and a bank card.
The victim — who is said to have lived at the house his entire life — fled to his neighbour and friend Larry Murphy’s nearby home and asked to use his phone to call police. Mr Murphy said the man was physically shaking when he arrived at his front door.
“Day in, day out you see the wee man heading up the road for a pint,” Mr Murphy told the Belfast Telegraph. “He is very well-known in the area and is very decent.
“At around 8pm on Friday he arrived at mine in a state. He said he had been pushed down while at least one man ran into his house and up the stairs.”
Mr Murphy pointed to a suspicious square marking beside his friend’s door which has appeared in recent weeks. He is concerned it may have been used to mark the property as “an easy touch” by those responsible.
“The people who did this are utter scumbags,” he added. “This wee man is very frail and about 5ft tall. He is very upset by the whole thing, God love him.
“People are scared as this could have happened to anyone. I’ve told my mother-in-law who is 90 not to answer the door, but to ring me and I will come down to see who it is. A lot of people are living in fear.”
Community worker Mo McDevitt, who lives a few doors up from the pensioner, said that her 92-year-old mother is also afraid to answer the door.
Ms McDevitt said there has been a problem with vandalism and theft locally, but praised police for a recent increased presence after she voiced concerns.
The robbery victim was recovering over recent days and is said to have sustained bruises as a result of the attack.
One of the culprits is described as being clean-shaven, 5ft 9in-to-6ft tall, with chubby features and short, dark hair.
Some offenders are let off with a caution
By Adrian Rutherford
Some thugs who targeted elderly people escaped serious punishment after being let off with a caution, it has emerged.
Criminals who admitted responsibility for burglaries where the victim was aged 65 and over were handed the warning, which carries no sanction.
It will reopen the debate about whether tougher punishments should be given to offenders who target older people.
Earlier this year the Belfast Telegraph reported how four pensioners are the victim of robberies or burglaries every day in Northern Ireland.
Yet just one in every 18 cases results in a suspect being arrested or charged, with the vast majority of incidents unsolved.
Statistics released by the PSNI show that since the start of 2010, 2,977 people aged 65 and over were the victim of either a robbery or a burglary.
Yet just 170 cases resulted in someone being charged.
Now it has emerged that in 19 of those 170 cases, the suspect was given a caution.
These are the lowest form of criminal sanction and are given when an offender admits a crime but no punishment is imposed.
A PSNI spokesperson said cautions were handed out in only a small minority of cases and after various factors had been taken into account.
These include the nature of the offence, the likely penalty if the offender was convicted, the offender's age and their previous criminal history.
“Although we cannot discuss individual cases, we can confirm that a caution would never be issued for an offence where an elderly person has been attacked in their home,” she said.
“It is more likely the case that these cautions have been issued in relation to a burglary at the home of an elderly person but not whilst they were present.”
However, DUP Policing Board member Jonathan Craig said cautions were sending out the wrong message to offenders.
“Detection rates for break-ins, especially those involving the elderly, are not good and when suspects are caught, it is not good enough that they are getting cautions,” he said.
“The police need to come down hard on these individuals, take them to court and let them face the consequences of their actions.”
Chief Superintendent Alan Todd said: “Let me assure you that we are doing our utmost to catch criminals who may be actively targeting older people.”