Arsonist's letter of apology fires up judge

Last updated 05:00 18/05/2013
James Hargest College
JOHN HAWKINS/Fairfax NZ
CHARRED REMAINS: Firefighters inspect the gutted James Hargest College senior campus classroom block after the arson.

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An Invercargill judge has mocked a letter of apology an Invercargill arsonist sent to James Hargest College after burning down three of its classrooms and causing nearly $1.5 million in damage.

Campbell Leaf, a former student at the college, was yesterday sentenced to three years and four months' jail after admitting two charges of arson, two of burglary and one charge of theft at the school in October and January.

Crown solicitor Mary-Jane Thomas said Leaf had said he enjoyed his time at the school, but at age 19 he had visited twice with the intention of destroying it and had succeeded at the second attempt.

Leaf's lawyer, Hugo Young, told Judge Kevin Phillips he had a copy of a letter Leaf had sent to the school.

The judge replied that it was very easy for Leaf to say he was so sorry he burnt the school down and caused $1.4m in damage. The judge asked Mr Young what the apology meant, before answering his own question.

"Absolutely, utterly nothing."

The apology would have meant something if Leaf had stopped after the first unsuccessful attempt at arson, but he had instead gone back to the school several months later and lit a larger fire.

"That shows an absence of remorse," the judge said.

He said it was easy to write a letter asking for restorative justice when he knew it was futile, adding any restorative justice conferences would have to be in the Civic Theatre, given the large number of people Leaf's offending had affected.

"Did he offer to go to a school assembly and speak to the kids? Did he offer that to Mr Wood [school principal Andy Wood]?" the judge asked.

"No sir," Mr Young said.

Mr Young said Leaf had ambled through life but for some reason went off the rails and at the peak of that time committed the arson.

Mr Young said he thought it was heartening that Leaf was sorry, because it showed he had a future after being released from prison.

The judge said young people burning school facilities that resulted in massive disruption and cost to those schools and the education sector was a huge problem in New Zealand.

He needed to denounce the offending, he said.

The judge said Leaf, who had no prior convictions, had consumed alcohol and smoked two bags of legal high K2 before the offending.

An 18-year-old also accused in the James Hargest College school arson is still before the courts.

College principal Andy Wood could not be contacted for comment yesterday afternoon.

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