Saturday 21 April 2018

Arsonist jailed for causing €1.25 million damage to Dublin apartment complex

Gardai at the scene of an apartment fire which occured last night in the Station Hill apartment complex in Clongriffin, North Dublin this morning. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.
Gardai at the scene of an apartment fire which occured last night in the Station Hill apartment complex in Clongriffin, North Dublin this morning. Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin.

Isabel Hayes and Jessica Magee

A man who set fire to a Dublin apartment complex, causing €1.25 million in damage and leaving 25 people temporarily homeless, has been jailed.

John McGovern (25) set fire to the Station Hill apartment complex at Clongriffin, Dublin last November after a “vicious attack” on his girlfriend when he was was “out of his mind” on drugs and drink, a court has heard.

Passing sentence at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard today, Judge Karen O'Connor said McGovern was at very high risk of reoffending, but noted he was making good use of his time in custody and trying to find a way to rehabilitate himself.

She suspended the last 12 months of a six and a half year prison sentence.

McGovern, of Shangan Terrace, Ballymun, Dublin, pleaded guilty to one count of arson causing damage to a number of apartments at Station Hill apartment complex at Clongriffin and to one count of assault causing harm to his partner Gráinne O'Brien on November 1 last year.

Judge O'Connor said arson was considered a very serious offence by the courts because it was impossible to control the outcome, and that McGovern had placed the lives of the residents at risk.

She said the financial loss to some of the residents due to the destruction of their property had been considerable, but also that they had been inconvenienced and lost their homes temporarily.

The judge said Ms O'Brien had suffered a “vicious attack” that was “frightening and physically painful” when her child was present.

She acknowledged that McGovern had had a very difficult upbringing including parental alcohol abuse, time spent in care when he was a child, and mental health issues suffered by both his mother and himself.

Garda Alan Roche told Ronan Kennedy BL, prosecuting, that McGovern and Ms O'Brien, who had had a tumultuous relationship, were drinking heavily throughout the Bank Holiday weekend.

On the Tuesday morning after the weekend, Ms O'Brien woke up in her apartment in the Station Hill complex to see McGovern throwing a hoover at her face. He then jumped on the bed and started kicking and punching her in the legs.

McGovern left the apartment shortly afterwards and went to the Travel Lodge in Ballymun where he continued to drink alcohol and took controlled drugs.

Ms O'Brien's ex-partner came to the apartment that afternoon, bringing their young child with them. He said Ms O'Brien had a black eye, split lip and was missing a tooth.

While he was there, McGovern returned to the apartment in a very “agitated state”, the court heard. He threatened to fight Ms O'Brien's ex-partner, causing him to flee the building. Ms O'Brien left shortly afterwards, leaving her son in the apartment with McGovern.

She ran to a neighbour's home and asked her to call gardaí. Her son left the building shortly afterwards and joined his mother in the neighbour's house.

Ms O'Brien then saw her apartment was “orange and on fire”, the court heard before she saw McGovern on the other side of the nearby train tracks yelling, “Look at your gaff Gráinne, I'm after setting it alight”.

McGovern caught a train to Raheny Station, where he was arrested after he was seen acting erratically and scraping a knife off the metal chairs.

When questioned by gardaí, he initially blamed the fire on his partner and her ex-boyfriend. He has 26 previous convictions including theft, public order offences and escaping from custody.

The court heard 14 fire trucks were called to the scene of the fire, which took four-and-a-half hours to get under control. All of the residents were evacuated and no-one was injured. Six homes were completely destroyed and others were badly damaged due to water.

A victim impact statement from the building owner, Jim Gannon, said the damage to the property amounted to €1.25 million.

25 people, including children, were left homeless for some time after the fire, including a family with a young child suffering from cancer. A number of victim impact statements were handed into court outlining the distress and financial hardship the fire caused to the occupants.

One man, a single parent, described how he and his daughter lost all their furniture. He said his daughter was deeply affected and distressed by the fire and it took them months to get their lives back on track.

Another woman described how she experienced depression and anxiety as a result of being made homeless.

Sean Guerin SC, defending, said his client failed to take his prescribed anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety medication in the days leading up to the incident. He said that, along with the alcohol and drug consumption, led to a “cocktail of reasons” why McGovern was “out of his mind”.

He said as a result, McGovern did not realise the extent of damage the fire would cause to the building.

He handed up a letter of apology from his client, in which McGovern described the fire as the “worst mistake of my life”.

“If I could turn back the clock, I would,” he said. He described his actions as “completely irresponsible and unacceptable” and extended his apologies to the affected residents.

McGovern had a troubled childhood and came from a “chaotic, disordered, volatile and physically violent background”, Mr Guerin said.

He has been in custody since the incident and was responding well to the regime in custody. He was now drug-free and eager to continue making progress, Mr Guerin said.

Judge O'Connor backdated the sentence to November 1, 2016 and ordered McGovern to keep the peace and be of good behaviour for two years.

He was also ordered to remain under the supervision of the Probation Services for two years and attend programmes as directed.

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