David Ahern found guilty of criminal damage after starting bank-holiday Monday gorse fire
A full crew of nine fire personnel, at a cost of €1,500 to Kerry fire services, had to respond to a gorse fire on an Easter Monday – but the fire was lit by a member of the crew itself.
David Ahern of 17 St James’s Gardens, Killorglin, was found guilty of Criminal Damage on April 13, 2020, at Cromane Upper, Killorglin, at Thursday’s sitting of Cahersiveen District Court.
The court heard that State-owned land of between one and one-and-a-half acres was damaged in the fire.
Upon visiting David Ahern’s house following the April 13 incident, Gardaí received confirmation from his partner that he was driving her car – a black, 2011-Galway-registered Volkswagen Passat – on that date. Witnesses put this car near the location when the fire began.
David Ahern, who had been working with Killorglin Fire Service for about two years before the incident, confirmed he was driving this car near that location on that day. He told Gardaí that he was travelling to Glenbeigh to see his son, having left his parents’ house in Tullig, when he noticed that he had left his cigarettes and phone behind. He turned back, but his pager went off before he reached their house, to alert him of the Cromane fire. He said he then went straight to the fire station.
Declan Ward; his partner, Amanda; and her parents, Eileen and Paul, each testified individually to the court, and Mr Ward alerted emergency services on the incident’s date. His 999 call was one of two played in court, while CCTV stills from Paul Langston’s home were also provided.
The court heard that all four were in Mr and Mrs Langston’s house that day as it was Paul’s birthday. Eileen Langston was sitting at a kitchen table with her husband when she drew attention to a car having stopped at the brow of a hill in view from the room’s window. She said she was suspicious as fires are often lit nearby, and she also noted the car having stopped at a location where “you wouldn’t stop”.
Paul Langston described how he saw a man getting out of the car at the location, about 500 to 600 yards from his house, “going around a corner”, and returning to the car. While he drove away, smoke began to billow from the gorseland.
Members of the group went out to the front garden, and Amanda described attempts to flag the driver down as he drove along the narrow road passing the house. She said the driver did not stop even though he looked directly at her and Declan.The couple were able to note the car’s registration.
Kerry’s Chief Fire Office, Andrew MacIlwraith, said the call-out took two and a quarter hours, but extra pay was provided to members as it was a bank holiday. The total call-out cost came to some €1,500.
Defence solicitor Brendan Ahern asked Gardaí if they knew how the fire was lit. They said they did not, and no technical or forensic examinations were carried out at the location.
Brendan Ahern noted that none of the testimonies provided any description of his client, and that his client had not been identified. He argued that none of the witness evidence could say that David Ahern had started the fire.
He also questioned why Amanda Langston, who said she had seen someone get into the black car in the distance; and Paul Langston, who said he saw someone leave the car and return to it, had not outlined this in their original statement to Gardaí.
Judge David Waters said he was satisfied there was sufficient evidence that the person who was driving the car did start the fire, and that David Ahern was the individual driving the car at that time. He also said that a statement to Gardaí is only an indication of the evidence that will be given in Court, and that the direct evidence takes precedence and was “unshaken” from the witnesses. He noted slight discrepancies between the testimonies, but he said this was to be expected and that each person having the exact same story would cause far greater suspicion.
He said David Ahern had committed criminal damage beyond any doubt, and his actions could have put human life, animal life, and property in danger.
Though Judge Waters said Mr Ahern benefitted financially from the fire – to the tune of €151 for responding to the callout – he dismissed a second charge of dishonestly, by deception, inducing Kerry County Council Fire Department to pay for him attending the fire.
He adjourned the matter to the January 13 sitting for sentencing and, if appropriate, a victim-impact statement. David Ahern has two previous theft convictions, dating back to 2009.