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Calls for inquiry into prosecution

A chief fire officer has called for an investigation into why three long-serving firefighters were prosecuted following the deaths of four of their colleagues in a warehouse blaze.

Graeme Smith, the head of Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service, claimed Adrian Ashley, Paul Simmons and Timothy Woodward had been "treated like common criminals" in the wake of the tragedy at Atherstone-on-Stour in 2007.

Jurors at Stafford Crown Court cleared Mr Ashley, 45, and 51-year-old Mr Woodward of gross negligence manslaughter after hearing six weeks of evidence about the deaths of Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, John Averis and Ian Reid.

A third defendant, 50-year-old watch manager Paul Simmons, was acquitted of manslaughter on the directions of the judge part-way through the trial.

Critics of the prosecution claim it placed too much reliance on the views of one expert witness, who compared the defendants to First World War generals sending lower ranks into a high-risk area.

It also emerged during the court proceedings that watch manager Ashley, station manager Woodward, and Mr Simmons were held in police cells overnight during questioning and had their belts and shoelaces seized.

Speaking after the verdicts, chief fire officer Smith said: "It is crystal clear that these cases should never have been brought to court.

"The police investigation into this fire took a wrong turn early on. The police treated decent fire officers like common criminals and the arsonist who started this fire has got away with it.

"It has taken almost five years and five million pounds of public money to construct a case against these three men and when it was presented in court it simply fell apart.

"The Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service and the Chief Fire Officers Association will now be writing to the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary to seek a formal investigation into how and why these legal proceedings were allowed to go forward."

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