Sunderland underworld enforcer who 'terrorised communities' jailed for life after arson attacks
A self-styled underworld enforcer said to have terrorised people on Wearside for more than two decades has been jailed for life.
Alan Smart received his sentence for setting fire to a house in Seaham in an attempt to recover a drugs debt from the occupier, rap singer David Baker.
Smart missed his target - Mr Baker was out at the time - but the fire trapped Mr Baker's partner Vicki Barnes in an upstairs bedroom.
She managed to squeeze through a window which had its opening restricted due to two previous arson attacks by Smart.
The evidence of Ms Barnes, and another witness who cannot be named for legal reasons, was key to securing his conviction.
"I cannot praise her highly enough," said senior investigating officer Detective Inspector Dave English of Northumbria Police.
"The bravery she showed in coming to court was outstanding.
"Mr Smart had terrorised people, communities, and companies on Wearside and Tyneside for more than two decades.
"He was like the Teflon Don, and thought he was untouchable.
"A number of prosecutions against him over the years could not succeed due to witness difficulties.
"Even hardened, organised, criminals were frightened of him.
"That he is now starting a life sentence, and will be on licence for life whenever he is released, shows that he is not untouchable."
Det Insp English urged other victims of Smart to come forward.
"I know there are people out there," he said. "Just because Mr Smart is now serving a life sentence doesn't mean his other crimes should not be looked into.
"Victims may not want to come directly to the police, but they can always approach one of our partner agencies."
In a trial lasting five weeks at Teesside Crown Court, a jury heard Smart was recruited by a significant drug dealer to recover debts, including Â£10,000 allegedly owed by Mr Baker.
Smart set fire to Mr Baker's car, and the front door of a house in which he was living in Seaham.
Mr Baker recorded 'disrespectful' rap songs about Smart which escalated the dispute.
The most serious fire was set at a house in Princess Road in Seaham to which Mr Baker and Ms Barnes had moved 'in secret' after the first two arsons.
As well as trapping Ms Barnes in her bedroom, the fire caused damage to the house which cost more than Â£60,000 to repair.
After the fire, Smart partied for three days with criminal associates in the Copthorne Hotel, Newcastle, telling his friends the fire was 'my best yet'.
He continued to party after reading of Ms Barnes' narrow escape on the Sunderland Echo website.
Smart, 39, of Shrewsbury Crescent, Humbledon, Sunderland, denied arson on December 23 and 24, both 2011, and he denied arson with intent to endanger life on April 29, 2012.
He was driven to and from the fire at Princess Road by accomplice David Roberts.
Roberts, 54, of Sorley Street, Millfield, Sunderland, denied arson with intent to endanger life on April 29, 2012.
Smart was convicted of all charges.
Roberts was convicted of the lesser charge of arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered.
Robert Woodcock QC, for Smart, said his last conviction was in 2014, and he had not retaliated when his house and car were damaged by other criminals.
Caroline Goodwin QC, for Roberts, said he was a petty criminal who had distanced himself from Smart following the arson.
Judge Deborah Sherwin sentenced Smart to life imprisonment with a minimum tariff of seven-and-a-half years.
Roberts was jailed for three years.
The judge told Smart: "You were an underworld enforcer who used fire as one of your weapons.
"You were on bail for the first two fires when you started the third, which demonstrates you thought you were untouchable.
"What you did at Princess Road was evil and wicked almost beyond belief.
"It is important to understand the tariff I have set is not a fixed release date, it is the first date at which the Parole Board can consider your release.
"You will not be released until the Parole Board is satisfied you no longer present a danger to the public."
The judge said she accepted Roberts had played a lesser role in starting the Princess Road fire, and there may have been an element of coercion because Smart was not a man it would have been easy to say 'no' to.