Belfast Telegraph

Man who took fire engine on £160k wrecking spree in Larne given probation

By Michael Donnelly

A remorseful Co Antrim man who took a stolen fire engine on a £160,000 drunken spree of destruction has been freed on probation.

Judge Desmond Marrinan told Ross Clarke he was making the two year order on condition he also completes 100 hours community service, adding but for his "toxic and totally inappropriate relationship" with a 68-year-old man he would never have been involved, let alone "could have dreamt up the escapade".

The Antrim Crown Court judge said while the now 20-year-old was not under the control of the pensioner he was "certainly under his malign Svengali and baleful" influence.

Judge Marrinan said although his crimes had crossed the custodial threshold, given Clarke's highly exceptional and difficult background - whose mentality made him a vulnerable person, easily led and manipulated - he was prepared to take the exceptional step in freeing him on the combination order.

However, the judge also told Clarke that given the multiple collisions and near misses he had, it was only "by the grace of God" that he was "not looking at a tragedy, or series of tragedies if things had gone wrong".

Clarke, who was also banned from driving for five years, has consistently blamed the pensioner, claiming he made him take the engine from Larne Fire Station in the early hours of March 5 last year after he'd drank a "crate of beer".

In all, Clarke, originally of Fairway in Larne, but now with an address in Rathcoole, Newtownabbey, admitted a total of 20 charges, including the aggravated taking of the engine and damaging the Agnew Street station.

His other crimes included criminal damage to six houses, a shop doorway, nine vehicles, including the fire engine, attempted burglary, dangerous driving, driving without insurance, and failing either to report, stop, or remain at the scene of an accident.

Last week, prosecutor Michael Chambers outlined how Clarke, and the pensioner, who escaped prosecution when declared mentally unfit, had initially attempted to take a lorry from a bus yard, but gave up after failing to start the vehicle. Mr Chambers said the pair then "jemmied" their way into the ferry-port's fire depot, where unfortunately two things were in Clarke's favour - the keys were in the ignition, and the vehicle was an automatic, allowing him to drive.

He added Clarke claimed he drank "a crate of beer" that evening, but was never breathalysed, although it was accepted he had drink taken. While Clarke also claimed the pensioner threatened him, the pensioner claimed it was Clarke's idea.

Yet, while refusing to drive down a one-way street, and even stopping for a red light, his attempts at reversing the fire appliance back into the station ended with a repair bill of over £80,000 to both the engine and the depot wall.

Then, with exaggerated claims of driving in excess of 100mph after nearly forcing a lorry off the road, Mr Chambers said Clarke's drive of destruction ended when he not only careered into an other lorry and parked cars, one of which was flipped onto its roof, he also smashed along six terraced homes on the town's Glenarm Road.

Defence QC Jackie Orr said that while a remorseful Clarke, who has a "severe learning disability", had always made the case that the pensioner was to blame, it did not amount to a legal defence of duress.

Ms Orr said that psychiatric, psychological and probation experts all agreed that Clarke was a "vulnerable adult, easily manipulated by others".

She also revealed that since that "night of sheer madness", Clarke had gone on to become a recipient of a Duke of Edinburgh Gold award, and is now "someone who has changed his life completely".

Belfast Telegraph

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