Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Bruce George Peter Lee

Arson

In the early hours of the morning of December 4, 1979, Edith Hastie, a 34-year-old mother of seven, awoke with a start. She was overcome with a powerful feeling of unease, perhaps borne of a mother's sixth sense that her children were in terrible danger. She shared her home at 12 Selby Street, in the small English port city of Hull, with her four sons, Charlie, 15, Paul, 12, Thomas, 9, and 8-year-old Peter. She had only bid them goodnight less than an hour earlier. Her three daughters were staying nearby with friends and relatives, so the house had been relatively quiet for once.

Dashing out onto the landing, she screamed as she saw flames shooting up the stairs. The wooden banister was already so hot it burnt her hand. Waking up her 15-year-old son Charlie, the pair went back to the landing in an attempt to rescue 9-year-old Thomas, who slept in the same room as his mother, since he suffered from muscular dystrophy and had great difficulty walking. But they were beaten back by the flames and smoke, and returned to the front bedroom, where Charlie frantically pushed his panicking mother out of the window, despite the 15-foot drop onto the concrete path outside. Edith injured her ankle in the fall, but struggled to her feet to urge Charlie to jump after her. Her eldest son ignored her pleas, determined to rescue his brothers, Paul and Peter, who were still asleep in the same room. However, all three boys soon found themselves trapped by the flames and smoke, which the draught from the open bedroom window had intensified. By the time the alarm was raised and fire services arrived on the scene, Paul, Peter and Charlie were suffering from burns over 70 to 85 percent of their bodies. Only 9-year old Thomas was rescued with less serious burns. Over the following two weeks, Paul, Peter and Charlie would all die of their injuries.

Firemen immediately suspected that the fire was no accident, and Hull's deputy chief of the C.I.D., Detective Superintendent Ronald Sagar, was sent to the scene.

A Row house fire.

He arrived at the gutted, smoldering house to be shown two spent matches found near the mailbox outside. He also noted a strong smell of paraffin, which he thought strange, since if paraffin had started the fire, it would surely have been swallowed up in the fire, and any smell would have gone with it. He spotted a pool of the flammable liquid a few feet from the door, as if someone had set a can there after pouring its contents through the mailbox slot.

Later that morning, forensic examinations confirmed his theory that the fire had started by the front door, underneath the letter box, after several pints of paraffin had been poured onto the carpet, followed by lighted newspaper. There was no doubt about it - someone had deliberately set out to burn down a family home, and what had started as an arson inquiry was soon to become an investigation into three shocking child murders.

 

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