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Widow who fostered more than 50 children murdered with cable, court told

A penniless thief murdered an elderly widow who had fostered over 50 children before using her phone to ring a sex chatline and then setting her house on fire, a court heard.

Gareth Dack, 33, is accused of killing Norma Bell, 79, in her home in Hartlepool by strangling her with an electrical cable.

Between midnight and 5am he then used her landline to call the "soft-porn television service" Babestation as she lay dead or dying on the floor.

He denies the charge of murder as well as one of arson.

Christopher Tehrani QC, prosecuting, told Teesside Crown Court that Dack was a drug user whose motivation had been money.

Described as an accomplished book-keeper, Mrs Bell and her husband John had been fostering children since 1965 after responding to a notice she had seen.

During that time they had three children of their own, six foster children who they treated as their own, and more than 50 foster babies and toddlers.

The couple stopped fostering in the 1990s and despite her husband's death in 2010, the jury was told Mrs Bell was fit for her age and would go line dancing.

Dack had been boyhood friends with one of her children, John Bell, when he would visit the family home.

But during the alleged attack in April last year he is accused of inflicting 15 injuries on Mrs Bell, which included several rib fractures, before strangling her with an electrical cable while she was still alive.

The jury was told the fractures and bruising on her back could have been caused by someone kneeling on Mrs Bell while applying pressure to the neck as they strangled her.

Dack allegedly went on to steal £700 in cash as well as her television, which he sold for £60 to associate Raymond McLoughlin, before ransacking her home looking for money or anything valuable.

After police seized his car, they found £405 in the glovebox.

It is alleged that, at two points in the evening, Dack left the house to visit the home of McLoughlin - on the first occasion at 10pm he sold him the stolen television and he returned at 1am to take cocaine and cannabis with him.

When Mrs Bell's body was recovered by firefighters, it was noted that her trousers had been pulled down to below her knees and that her tights and underwear had been cut from the waist down to the area of the pubic bone, although there is no evidence she was sexually assaulted.

Mr Tehrani said: "The fire officers entered the premises and found Norma Bell unconscious and on the floor in the rear reception room on the ground floor.

"Two fire officers carried Mrs Bell out of the house to an ambulance where she was found to be dead.

"It was noted that there was an electrical cable tightly applied to the neck."

The jury heard the fire was not started accidentally but had been started by "deliberate ignition" in the rear reception room and on Mrs Bell's bed.

Dack's DNA was found on the door handle of an interior door, on a spent match, on two cell phones found in the kitchen, on the inside of Mrs Bell's handbag, on one of the knobs on the gas hob, on a briefcase in Mrs Bell's bedroom, on the ligature around her neck and on the waist band of her underpants.

The court heard that Dack had no money and had been resorting to borrowing cash from loan companies and friends including £10 from Mrs Bell the week before.

He had racked up debts along with his partner, with whom he lived with their children in Hartlepool.

The case continues.

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