Editorial: Still sifting through the ashes

Last updated 05:00 15/02/2014
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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OPINION: The second of the two teenaged James Hargest College arsonists has been jailed, and a good job too.

The damage Duncan Robert Roderick McRae and Campbell Leaf caused went beyond the figure now put at about $3.2 million. Such fires carry inherent risk to human life. Quite apart from the public, firefighters, for all their skills, step into danger answering these callouts.

Even after insurance the school's budget has taken a hit, its pupils and teachers have had to travel to classes elsewhere, and the rebuilding process, tied to glacial Education Ministry decision making processes, is still not complete.

Then there's the small matter of the emotional hit that is felt by a school community chosen for such an act of malice.

For his part, Leaf wrote a letter to Hargest expressing remorse. Judge Kevin Phillips didn't buy that, given that the fire was a second attempt by the pair after their first break-in, three months earlier, hadn't caused the scale of damage sufficient to satisfy.

As for what was perhaps the real upshot of the letter, a bid for a restorative justice conference, Judge Phillips was withering in his rejection given the supersized consequences of the offending and the number of people wronged by it. Any restorative justice conferences, he growled, would have to be in the Civic Theatre.

Arson's bad. We knew this already. As with so many other cases, the motivation in this one really remains a mystery because neither Leaf nor McRae has fully explained why they lit the fire.

Certainly, both had been consuming legal highs. Leaf, who had been drinking and had smoked two bags of K2 beforehand, had no prior convictions and later even told authorities he had enjoyed his time at the school.

From such a summary some people may be content to see legal highs as the trigger. Maybe so, but that does not make it the culprit plain and simple.

K2 and its ilk are seriously harmful and the full reach of their effects are still insufficiently understood. But the problem of arsons generally, and school arsons in particular, reach back far further than the advent of this unlovely product.

Nor can we permit ourselves to default to blaming kids. Let's not forget that supremely weird case where a volunteer firefighter stood up at a national conference in Invercargill in 1999 and asked an arsonist profiler if she could detect an offender just by interviewing him.

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Her answer was that a semi-structured interview could help identify clusters of characteristics, but it would be unlikely to get enough from mere scrutiny or a brief exchange.

The questioner in that particular brief exchange, Keith James Raymond, was days away from being exposed as one of the worst serial arsonists in New Zealand's history, admitting setting 22 fires around West Auckland.

A further 30 charges were dropped. His sentencing judge called him a manipulative, calculating man and sentenced him to five years' jail.

By comparison the novice Leaf, incidentally, was sentenced to three years and four months; McRae to three years six months. Tell us again how courts have been getting softer.

Not that the problem has been lessening. Arsons continue hither and yon nationwide and in Invercargill - among them the Salford St shops on January 22, four less damaging fires in the city in the early hours of February 7, and the Christmas Day fires in Crinan St and Tay St. More successful prosecutions would be good because, atop the spikey penalties liable to be imposed, we still have plenty of questions to ask these clowns.

- The Southland Times

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