Pair convicted of Chilford Hall arson

TWO men have been convicted of carrying out an arson attack on one of the biggest wedding and conference venues in the region – causing millions of pounds worth of damage.

Chilford Hall in Linton was burned to the ground in the early hours of June 13 this year after a former employee and his neighbour started a fire in a 400-year-old barn.

Thomas Richardson, 27, who worked as a barman and porter at the wedding venue for seven years, and his friend Mark Hall, 28, were accused of arson with intent to endanger life and a lesser charge of arson being reckless as to whether life was in danger.

Richardson had already pleaded guilty to the lesser charge but a jury at Cambridge Crown Court convicted Hall of the same offence.

The pair, of Pipers Close, Haverhill, were cleared of the more serious charge of arson with intent to endanger life.

Judge Gareth Hawkesworth said both should expect a substantial custodial term when they are sentenced on February 8 next year.

During the two-week trial the jury of seven men and five women heard how Richardson had been sacked from his job at Chilford Hall in 2009 on suspicion of stealing and drinking alcohol.

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Prosecutors accused him of having an “obsession” with the historic venue and said he burned it down in a revenge attack two days before the third anniversary of his dismissal.

Hall was described as a “willing accomplice”.

On the night of the fire, police were tipped off by Richardson’s then girlfriend Sally Ketteridge that the pair might be planning to burn down Chilford Hall – where owner Fiona Alper and her 28-year-old son Ben were asleep in the main house at the time.

Officers spotted Richardson’s black Honda Accord in the car park of his former place of work and traced it back to an address in Haverhill where he and Hall were arrested.

Richardson, who said he was an alcoholic, claimed he went to the venue to “smash the place up” and steal alcohol to satisfy his addiction.

Both men blamed each other for starting the fire – with Hall arguing that he had been bullied into accompanying Richardson and had feared for his own life when the blaze broke out.

Judge Hawkesworth ordered psychological and pre-sentence reports for the pair ahead of their sentencing.

The arson attack is estimated to have cost in the region of �5m and was tackled by more than 60 firefighters from crews across three counties.

Speaking after the conviction, DC Tracey Griffin of Cambs Police said: “This was a revenge attack by an ex-employee and his accomplice which caused a considerable amount of damage, not to mention the heartache this caused couples who were due to get married at the wedding venue.

“The fire not only put officers and fire officers in danger but has also had a detrimental effect on the local community and local businesses.

“Thankfully no-one was hurt and I hope today’s result sends out a strong message to others of the serious consequences of arson.”