Arsonist jailed after starting fire and then claiming to be a 'hero' by running into the Sunderland flat

An arsonist who posed as a "hero" after he sparked a ferocious blaze that caused his neighbour to jump from an upstairs window and fracture her spine has been jailed.

Monday, 12th July 2021, 2:00 pm

When a fire broke out at an upstairs flat on Whitehall Terrace in Sunderland just before midnight on August 5, 2019, downstairs tenant Robert Barnett was seen running into the blaze and claimed he had attempt to save his neighbour, who was living above.

Barnett said he heard "screaming" and saw her staircase engulfed in flames and had tried to rescue her before she jumped from the top-floor to save herself.

However, CCTV also showed Barnett, 30, going in and out of the flat in the moments leading up to the blaze - and proved he was responsible for sparking the flames, which caused over £17,000 damage.

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Robert Barnett has been jailed for starting the blaze.
Robert Barnett has been jailed for starting the blaze.

He initially refuted his involvement and insisted he was just trying to help his neighbour, but he later admitted arson being reckless as to whether life is endangered.

At Newcastle Crown Court Barnett was jailed for three years and seven months for the "revenge" attack, that he hoped would get his neighbour moved away.

Judge Penny Moreland told him: "In drink you formed the view that you would set fire to [his neighbour’s] flat in order to have her moved out and, in drink, you thought that was a solution to your problem.

"I accept that you thought the flat was empty, however it wasn't.

Robert Barnett

"[His neighbour] was asleep on the sofa and by setting fire to her carpet on the stairs, which were the only exit from the flat, effectively you trapped her in her home.

"All she could do to escape was jump from a window at the back of her home."

Judge Moreland added: "Those were, on anyone's view, very serious injuries indeed."

Damage caused by the blaze started by Barnett.

The court heard Ms Burrell's general health later deteriorated and she suffered cardiac arrests that have now left her in a care home.

Prosecutor Anne Richardson told the court she had been woken up by smoke and fire and was unable to get out of her front door due to the flames.

She added: "She tried to get out of her window and fell and landed in the yard at the back of her flat.

"She had no means of escape other than to fling herself out of the window and sustained several fractures and was taken to hospital for surgery."

Robert Barnett told medics he was a hero but later admitted to starting the fire and causing £17,000 damage.

The court heard a number of calls had been made to the fire service by neighbours who saw the flames, including Barnett.

Miss Richardson added: "A witness saw the defendant going to the property on a number of occasions, attempting to get [his neighbour] out of the property.

"As a result Mr Barnett suffered burns and was initially interviewed as a witness and treated as a hero for trying to rescue [his neighbour].

"He said that the stairs were flaming and that he was unable to get to the top. He had initially gone into the flat clad only in boxer shorts, but he stated that, realising he needed more protection from the fire, he went back to his flat to get a blanket and some gloves."

Fire investigators concluded there had been two seats of flame that were deliberately started and CCTV showed a hooded figure lurking around the alleyway at the time.

The same hooded clothes were later found in Barnett's home.

Some of the fire damage

Miss Richardson added: "It would appear that the defendant was in drink and it was some form of revenge attack, predicated on issues he perceived he had with her and her friends in the flat above."

He was arrested while receiving treatment to burns on his hands and feet at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle and claimed he had simply tried to "help".

Jane Foley, defending, said Barnett has now accepted "full responsibility" for the role he played in starting the fire.

Miss Foley said Barnett had become frustrated about noise from upstairs and added: "He decided, in drink, rather stupidly, exceptionally foolishly, to set fire to the neighbour's flat in the hope it might mean she was move away from the area.

"He did believe no-one was there, it was quiet and with that in mind he set fire to the property.

"When he did become aware of someone being in, he took it upon himself to go in himself, at great risk to himself."

Miss Foley said Barnett is genuinely remorseful and would not have carried out the offence if he had been sober.

Detective Sergeant David Vincent, of Northumbria Police, said: "Robert Barnett tried to convince everybody that he was the hero, who was willing to sacrifice his own safety in a bid to rescue his neighbour who he believed to be trapped upstairs.

"But his account was built on lies – knowing full well that he was the one who had lit the flame and caused the significant blaze that had engulfed the property.

"The victim suffered significant injuries as a result of the blaze and her health has since deteriorated.

"It must have been a horrifying experience for her, fearing she was trapped and her only escape was to jump out of her upstairs window.

"It is therefore imperative that the person responsible is brought to justice, and I sincerely hope this outcome can offer the victim and her family some comfort.

"Barnett should be absolutely ashamed of his actions, and I am pleased that he has now been convicted at court."

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The blaze caused around £17,000 damage.