Chilford Hall arson trial: Jury expected to retire today to consider evidence

JURORS are expected to retire today (Thursday) to consider the evidence in the Chilford Hall arson trial – with a disgruntled former employee and his neighbour waiting to hear their fate.

Thomas Richardson, 27, and Mark Hall, 28, have appeared at Cambridge Crown Court accused of burning to the ground the Linton venue on June 13 this year.

Prosecutors say Mr Richardson, who worked at Chilford Hall as a barman and porter for seven years, targeted the popular wedding and conference venue in a revenge attack on the third anniversary of his dismissal for stealing and drinking alcohol.

His friend and neighbour Mr Hall was described as a “willing accomplice”.

The pair, both of Pipers Close, Haverhill, deny committing arson with intent to endanger life and have blamed each other for starting the blaze.

Mr Richardson has admitted a lesser charge of arson being reckless as to whether life was in danger. Hall pleaded not guilty to the same charge.

In the prosecution’s closing statements, Gregory Perrins told jurors that by not summoning help and by doing nothing, Mr Hall and Mr Richardson had shown a deliberate “desire to harm”.

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“They set a huge fire while Fiona Alper and her son slept and they left it and her to burn – and that is what they intended,” he told them, having earlier said: “They were seen running away together as a team with a shared plan and a shared intention.”

Summing up, Adam Budworth, defence counsel for Mr Richardson, told the jury of seven men and five women they must be sure his client had, with “virtual certainty”, intended to endanger life.

He accepted Mr Richardson was obsessed by Chilford Hall but questioned whether he had said anything about harming anyone in the period between his sacking and the setting of the fire.

“His grudge was against the building and not about anyone in particular. At no point has it been suggested that there was any grudge against the Alper’s,” he said.

Mr Hall’s barrister, Mark Shelley, described his defendant as a “gentle man” who has learning difficulties, a low IQ and is autistic.

He said Mr Hall had been bullied into it by Mr Richardson, drawing on evidence given to police by the latter’s girlfriend, Sally Ketteridge.

Mr Shelley added that his client had heard about Mr Richardson’s threats to burn down Chilford Hall but did not take them seriously.

“He had been bullied and pushed into this, and as Sally said, ‘rallied into it’, but when he realised Thomas Richardson was going to carry out his threats he then panicked and wanted nothing more to do with it,” Mr Shelley told the jury.

He also said Mr Hall did not know the Alper’s, would not have been aware they lived at Chilford Hall and did not have a grudge against them.

Judge Gareth Hawkesworth explained the concept of “joint enterprise” to the jury, adding: “It is not necessary for the prosecution to prove who actually started the fire. The prosecution have to prove they were in it together sharing an intention to start the fire, and that each played a part, however great or small, in the setting and feeding of that fire.”

More than 60 firefighters from crews across three counties were called to tackle the blaze and prevent flames from spreading to the main house where owner Fiona Alper and her 28-year-old son Ben slept.

The cost of the fire is estimated to be around �5million – �3m damage to the buildings and contents and �2m lost revenue because of the 120 bookings which had been made up to 2015.

A verdict is expected by the end of the week.