Bizarre actions 'point to arson'

Kelvin Mark Webb's reactions to the five fires at Foxton Racecourse mark him as the arsonist, a High Court jury in Palmerston North has been told.

The prosecution and defence lawyers summed up their cases yesterday in the two-week-long trial of Webb, 36, a former caretaker at the racecourse.

Webb is accused of lighting five fires at the facility between November 18 and December 18, 2011.

Crown prosecutor Ben Vanderkolk said Webb's actions in the face of the five fires were "out of the ordinary" and this painted a target on him.

"As the arsonist he did not know how to react when the fires were underway," Mr Vanderkolk told the jury. "His immediate reactions are contrived, over-stated, false."

During one fire Webb was offering bourbon and cola drinks to people, Mr Vanderkolk said. At another he impeded firefighters with a tractor.

Several hours after the final fire Webb rang the owner of a stable that was destroyed to check on his horses. He had previously not shown an interest in the horses' welfare, Vanderkolk said.

Mr Vanderkolk said Webb did not fit in at the racecourse, lacking the background or interest in horse racing and equestrian events others had, and so was "bored and lonely".

Webb lived in the caretaker's house at the racecourse which was within walking distance of all five fires he said. He could light the fires and return home without being at risk of discovery.

Defence lawyer Fergus Steedman said the prosecution's case was built around prejudice.

He said that much as people's perceptions of South African sprinter Oscar Pistorious had changed in the past fortnight - since he was charged with murdering his girlfriend - people's perceptions of Webb had changed since he was charged with the arsons.

This coloured how they recalled things he had said and done during the time of the fires at Foxton Racecourse.

There was no forensic evidence that linked Webb to any of the fires, save for grainy, dark security footage of his house which showed something moving in front of lights beside the house around the time the fifth fire was lit. Mr Steedman said nobody could tell what the footage showed.

It could have been Webb bringing his dog outside or something unrelated to him entirely.

"The case is completely circumstantial."

Mr Steedman said detectives discussed charging Webb after his second police interview in late November but did not as they did not have enough evidence.

"Bet your bottom dollar if they could have charged him then they would have done."

The only new evidence gained after that point was the security footage.

He said the various reactions Webb had to the fires, which Mr Vanderkolk had questioned, were completely reasonable.

The offering of drinks was the action of a "socially awkward" man trying to comfort people while the firefighters were impeded briefly after Webb had tried to remove a gate from its hinges to make their access easier and then did not think to drive on to a section of grass to let them past.

Webb had his quirks, Mr Steedman said, but that did not make him an arsonist.

"Yes he's unusual, yes he's awkward, yes he's a drinker, yes he's flawed but the defence case is notwithstanding that, he's innocent."

Justice Jillian Mallon will sum up the case on Monday before the jury begin their deliberations. As strong as the case against Webb is, the case against a track rider is stronger, Webb's lawyer Fergus Steedman has told a jury in the High Court in Palmerston North.

On three of the 10 days of the trial, track rider Danny Stamm has given evidence. In his closing yesterday Mr Steedman outlined 25 reasons Mr Stamm could be the arsonist, though he also said "there's probably not enough evidence to charge Stamm".

Mr Steedman went through possible motives for Mr Stamm starting each of the five fires and pointed out that he had no alibi for any of them, though neither did Webb.

From his own evidence Mr Stamm had said he could get from the caravan he lived in to the racecourse in "three minutes easy" along a path that was largely secluded, Mr Steedman said.

There were also questions over the reliability of some of the evidence he had given, Mr Steedman said, especially a comment he made to police that Webb had told him he liked to light fires.

Manawatu Standard