Father gets jail term for arson of home

LYN HUMPHREYS
Last updated 11:40 20/07/2013

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A New Plymouth man who set fire to and destroyed the house in which his two children and former partner were sleeping has been jailed for five years.

The family escaped the fire after being woken by smoke alarms.

Robert Lee pleaded guilty to the arson of the house in Tahurangi Place in December 2009 in the same week he was to go to trial.

In jailing Lee, Judge Allan Roberts rejected the pleas of Lee's three victims in the New Plymouth District Court yesterday.

The two children had written letters asking the judge not to send their father to jail and, through her sobs, his former partner beseeched the judge not to deprive the children of their father.

When a man whistled in court in response to the length of the sentence, the judge had him arrested and taken to the court cells. After the close of sentencing, the whistler apologised to the judge and was released without penalty.

Crown prosecutor Sarah Law called for a jail sentence of five to six years. The case was made worse because of the premeditation, vulnerability of the sleeping family and Lee's previous convictions, Ms Law said.

Lee was assessed as being a medium risk of reoffending.

Lee's lawyer, Paul Keegan, said not a day went past in the last three years that Lee had not regretted what he had done.

Lee had been drunk and very angry at the time after his brother's partner had just been arrested for smashing windows.

More recently, his brother had "ratted him out" to avoid a six-month prison sentence and Lee had put his hand up to the arson.

He was remorseful and had made efforts to atone. Lee was a loving father to his two children, Keegan said.

Lee's former partner stood in court, saying Lee was a wonderful father who was in pain and a shadow of his former self. She pleaded that he not be jailed.

"This is destroying him."

The judge asked whether the children should be in court listening to proceedings.

"The two children have been aware of the case from day one," the mother replied.

Judge Roberts said Lee had limited insight and little remorse. He told the probation officer: "I knew they would not die. My intention was to scare them."

The property was rented. Before Christmas 2009 the couple broke up. On Boxing Day, Lee made 32 phone calls to his partner and if she answered the phone he verbally abused her.

At 3.30am the next day, he started a fire under her bedroom.

"She was fortuitously woken by the smoke alarms." The woman and the two children were able to escape.

At the time of the arson, the children were aged 7 and 9.

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The fire caused $121,000 of damage.

Lee had 55 previous convictions and three prison sentences, the majority of which were for dishonesty. The common denominator was alcohol consumption, but Lee did not accept he had a problem, the judge said.

It was entirely understandable that the children pleaded for their father's liberty, Judge Roberts said. "I accept that in all other respects you are a good and loving father."

Arson caused not only damage to property but risks to firefighters and the community at large.

"The danger to life was real."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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