Arsonist sentenced to 21 years for hotel fire which killed guest
Damion Harris was described as ‘wicked’ by Judge Paul Thomas after starting the blaze in Aberystwyth deliberately.
An arsonist has been sentenced to 21 years after starting a fire at a hotel which killed one guest, seriously injured another and devastated a part of a popular seaside tourist resort.
Damion Harris, 31, set a cupboard full of linen on fire inside the Ty Belgrave House hotel, resulting in it being engulfed in flames and forcing guests woken by smoke to jump from balconies and climb to its roof to survive.
Harris was described as “wicked” by Judge Paul Thomas, who said he had deliberately started the fire at around 2am at the height of the tourist season either through “stupidity” or “malice”.
Swansea Crown Court heard the blaze has led to an estimated £5 million in losses to the hotel and neighbouring properties in Marine Terrace, Aberystwyth, West Wales.
Fire safety officer Juozas Tunaitis, 48, who was staying at the boutique hotel with three colleagues, was the only guest who failed to escape the fire on July 25 last year.
His remains were found underneath the collapsed building the following September, and were so badly damaged they were only identified through DNA two months later.
His mother Kazimieros Tunaitienes, who said she was financially dependent on her son, told the court: “I have no idea how I will survive without him, or what strain I will suffer. I’ve lost a part of myself.”
Richard Simnett, 42, from Burton upon Trent, who was on holiday with his partner and sons aged four and five, was forced to help his family escape their attic room by climbing to the hotel’s steep slate roof, which he fell from, suffering a number of serious injuries.
He landed on a metal rail which stopped him falling a further 12ft on to a concrete floor, but broke his arm and was left with a number of serious fractures and needing major surgery on his spine.
The truck driver, who was in a full body brace for five months, told the court: “As a result of the fire, I’ve suffered numerous medical complications that have had a massive impact on me and my family.
“I’ve not been able to drive or pick up my children and squeeze them.”
His partner Caroline Latham, 43, said the fire had traumatised their two young boys and placed a strain on her relationship with Mr Simnett.
She said: “The fire has completely destroyed our lives. We are on the brink of destroying our family unit.”
Harris was caught on CCTV entering the hotel at around 2am and removing a fire extinguisher from a wall in the unmanned reception area, before he hid it on an upper level and returned downstairs to set a pair of net curtains on fire with a cigarette lighter.
The flames on the curtains self-extinguished but Harris entered the hotel’s basement to set fire to a cupboard containing linen before making his escape.
The fire spread upwards through the hotel, while its 16 guests slept, and on to the neighbouring Belle Vue Royal Hotel which contained another 54 guests, all of whom were evacuated.
Guests at Ty Belgrave House were woken by smoke entering their rooms, and some managed to escape through the front door before flames became too strong and trapped others inside.
Mr Simnett and his family escaped to the roof after Ms Latham made a 999 call to the fire service, which was played in court.
Ms Latham said in the phone call: “Two children, four and five. We’ve tried to get down the stairs but we can’t. There’s thick smoke.”
Ms Latham is heard telling her sons “Hold hands, boys, stay together” after they were lifted by their father to the hotel roof, and then instructed them to recite their five times table to distract them after their father slipped and fell.
She and her two boys were helped down from the roof by firefighters who used a cherry picker.
Mr Tunaitis was seen poking his head out of his second-floor window by guests who had already evacuated on to the street, and replied to calls for him to jump down from a balcony saying: “I’ll find another way. I can’t do it.”
He was not seen again, and a post-mortem examination could not determine whether he died from smoke inhalation or directly from the fire.
Harris, a father of two from Llanbadarn, Aberystwyth, was identified as the arsonist using CCTV but gave a number of false accounts to police and psychologists, which included how he had been threatened by an unknown man to set the hotel on fire or else his family would be harmed.
He was charged with the murder of Mr Tunaitis, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter, arson and inflicting grievous bodily harm with intent on the day his trial was due to begin on Monday.
Nadine Radford QC, representing Harris, read a letter from him which said he was “very sorry” for the “pain and grief” he had caused.
Judge Thomas said Harris had never given a reason for his actions, but suggested it was a combination of drink and his frustration at an encounter with a girl after leaving a nightclub which led to him starting the blaze.
The judge said: “Fuelled by drink and annoyed and frustrated by your conversation with a young woman, you went into the hotel for malicious purposes.
“You simply did not care what happened to those who were in the hotel.”
The judge said he believed Harris posed a significant risk to the public, and handed him an extended sentence of 21 years.