Arsonists jailed after couple forced to flee for their lives from burning flat
Two arsonists who started a fire which caused a couple to flee their flat have been jailed for a total of more than 10 years.
Gary Bell started two fires at a storage unit in Eden Street, Horden, and he was joined by Lee Morrow in setting a second, more serious fire, which caused substantial damage to a flat above the unit.
A cat belonging to flat occupants Chas Stoddard, 58, and his partner, Dee Stobie, 53, was killed in the fire.
The couple lost 40% of their possessions which were not insured, Teesside Crown Court heard.
In a victim statement read to the court, Mr Stoddard said were it not for the fact he was awake in the early hours of the morning watching television, the couple could have been killed.
He said the couple had been left with nothing, and were grateful to the community in Horden for rallying around to help them.
Ms Stobie said she had suffered panic attacks since the fire, and she worried the couple had been targeted for some reason.
Stephen Bennett, who rented the storage unit, said he had lost electrical and other items valued at Â£4,000 which he planned to sell at car boot sales.
Prosecutor Stephen Grattage told the court the first fire was started by Bell in the backyard of the premises.
"It was about 2.36am," said Mr Grattage. "The fire was a small one and was easily put out by firefighters.
"At about 4.10am Bell and Morrow return to the premises and enter the backyard.
"Mr Stoddard who was upstairs heard noises and realised people were in the ground floor of the property.
"He called the police, and CCTV at 4.30am shows the street full of smoke.
"Morrow can be seen casually climbing over the wall and walking away.
"Mr Stoddard and Ms Stobie had fled their smoke filled property.
"Bell, who was on crutches, was still in the backyard.
"He was rescued by police having been singed by the fire."
Mr Grattage said the cause of fire could not be established or why it was started.
He added: "We say it may have been to destroy evidence of entry or for some other purpose."
Bell, 42, of Blackhills Road, Horden, pleaded guilty to two charges of arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered on May 21.
Morrow, 47, of Sixth Street, Horden, was convicted of a single offence of arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered after a trial.
Lawyers for the pair said both had been assessed by a psychiatrist, and both were found not to have any fascination with fire or starting fires.
Martin Scarborough, for Bell, said: "He had taken valium and drink, and has little recollection of that night.
"His best belief is he used a lighter to help him see, and that is what started the fire."
Andrew Findlay, for Morrow, said his client claimed he was outside the premises when the fire started.
"The jury found against him," added Mr Findlay.
"He was a drugs user at the time, and was out that night foraging for whatever he could get."
Judge Simon Bourne-Arton jailed Bell for five-and-half-years, and jailed Morrow for five years.
The judge told both men: "I am of the view you went there looking for something to steal.
"You both went in, and you are both jointly responsible.
"You had no intention to cause serious harm to anyone, but people were certainly endangered."