Belfast Telegraph

Derry judge points to Grenfell tragedy as he jails street drinker for arson at flats

By George Jackson

A judge at Londonderry Crown Court said he was mindful of the Grenfell Tower tragedy after sentencing a man for setting a fire in a flats complex in the city.

Judge Philip Babington made the comments after jailing the homeless street drinker for two years and eight months for deliberately setting alight a bin in the store room of the Meridian Flats on John Street in Derry last year.

Steven Thomas Neely (33) pleaded guilty to a single charge of arson endangering life on October 9 last year.

A second charge of arson with intent to endanger life was left on the books.

The court was told that on the night in question Neely and another man were looking for somewhere to sleep. They managed to gain entry to the Meridian Flats complex from where they'd previously been refused entry.

At 4am the Northern Ireland Fire And Rescue Service received reports of a blaze in the building. The fire, which had been started by Neely using a lighter to ignite cardboard and Polystyrene in a bin in the store room, was quickly extinguished by firefighters.

Judge Babington told the court the building contained 24 flats - 22 of which were occupied on the night of the blaze.

He said residents of the entire complex, adults and children, had to be evacuated, adding that the fire had caused considerable smoke damage that cost just over £3,600 to repair.

Neely was arrested nearby minutes after the fire was extinguished. He told police during his interview that he remembered nothing as he had been on an eight-day drinking binge. When he was shown the CCTV footage of his behaviour, Neely apologised and was remorseful. He told the police he had wanted to keep warm.

Judge Babington said Neely had 26 previous criminal convictions, including three for intimidation and eight for causing criminal damage.

He said a pre-sentence report stated that Neely had long-standing alcoholism issues and, when he relapsed into drinking, he would reoffend. The report continued that Neely had limited victim awareness, poor self-control and lived a chaotic lifestyle.

The judge said he accepted Neely had no malevolent intent, and thankfully - but no thanks to Neely - the fire was extinguished quickly.

"It was, however, a most serious incident involving a block of flats occupied by many families and children. One only has to look at the recent tragedy at the Grenfell tower block in London (inset) to know that complexes of flats can be particularly vulnerable in terms of fires," he said.

Neely will serve half of his sentence in prison and the rest on licence.

Belfast Telegraph

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