Pair on trial for burning down garage

DAVID CLARKSON
Last updated 17:03 26/11/2012

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A couple slipped away from a Christchurch bar to set fire to their struggling auto repair business, the Crown alleges.

However, the defence says the police have put the wrong people on trial.

The arson trial of Kishor Singh, 56, and Ajeshni Healy, 33, began today before Judge Alistair Garland in Christchurch District Court.

They are charged with burning down the Auto Repair Centre in Byron Street, Sydenham, on the night of September 27, 2008, with the loss and damage for the rented building totalling $431,582.

Their own insurance claim for the business has not been paid, pending the outcome of the prosecution. 

Crown prosecutor Claire Boshier told the jury the couple had been drinking at the Stock Exchange bar in central Christchurch on the night of the fire, but left the bar for 38 minutes, about the time of the fire, and a car similar to the one Healy was driving was then seen on a surveillance camera near the business.

Defence counsel for both accused, Pip Hall, said: "She has latched on to these suspicious circumstances in building a case where the Crown says the accused had a motive, and an opportunity to commit the crime, and therefore they must be guilty.

"The defence is that the two accused have committed no crime. Who might have been responsible may or may not emerge during the trial, but it is not for the defence to prove who was responsible."

Boshier said there had been repeated difficulties with monthly rental payments for the property, and staff wages, and two of the staff were leaving to set up another business. They left the day before the fire, and one of them handed back the keys to the premises.

The day before the fire, full supermarket bags and a computer monitor were seen being loaded into Healy's car, outside the business.

On the Saturday night of the fire, the pair arrived at the bar at 9.51pm to watch a rugby league final match, and the security camera recorded them leaving during the game at 10.37pm. 

A security camera at the corner of Gasson and Byron Streets shows a vehicle similar to the two-tone SUV that Healy was driving arriving at 10.45pm and reversing into a park behind a dairy.

Two people are seen to get out and walk towards Byron Street.At 10.50pm, the alarm in the Auto Repair Centre was turned off.

"The person who did it knew the code," said Boshier. 

A cellphone tower at the old railway station showed Healy's cellphone in the area at 10.51pm.

A cellphone tower near Fitzgerald Avenue noted Singh's cellphone in the area at 11.09pm.

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Two people are seen returning to the parked car at 11.05pm and 11.06pm.

The bar's security camera shows Singh and Healy returning and resuming drinking at 11.15pm.

The fire was reported at 11.12pm and the first fire engine arrived at 11.18pm.

The building was badly damaged.

The couple initially told the police they had watched the entire league match at the bar, but when they were told of the camera footage, they said they had left for a time to go for a walk in the city and get kebabs.

The owner of the damaged building, Austin Cole, who also worked in the motor trade, gave evidence of repeated problems with rent payments. 

Asked by Hall whether the couple said they had problems with their own customers being slow to pay, Cole replied: "Their credit around town was non-existent. They weren't paying their bills. It was common knowledge in the trade."

But he agreed that the rent was up-to-date at the time of the fire, and the most recent payment indicated that they wanted to keep the business going.

He also accepted that the staff member who had left the day before the fire had quickly placed an advertisement for his own business on the building after the fire.

Insurance claims officer Richard Whitehead told of receiving a claim for the business' material damage and business interruption estimated at up to $70,000. No payment was made.

John Patrick Weir, told of working as workshop manager at the Auto Repair Centre. The business had been "not busy" in 2008, and car parts suppliers were not being paid, and staff were not being paid some of the time. They ended with credit being denied and they had to pay for supplies as they went.

Then cheques started to bounce and they ended up on "cash only" arrangements.He made an offer to buy the business but it was declined. He handed back his key, and took his tools and left the business on the day before the fire.

On the night of the fire, he went out with his family until 10.30pm and then fell asleep while watching sport on television.

Cross-examined, Weir insisted that Healy had asked him for his access code for the building's alarm system and he had given it to her.

He said he later heard rumours that it was his code that had been used to deactivate the alarm on the night of the fire.

The trial is continuing.

- The Press

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