Twists, turns and no real answers

INVESTIGATION: A police officer leaves the Auto Repair Centre in Byron St, Sydenham, after it caught fire in September 2008.
INVESTIGATION: A police officer leaves the Auto Repair Centre in Byron St, Sydenham, after it caught fire in September 2008.

After a nine-day trial, a Christchurch couple have been convicted of setting fire to their own Sydenham business. But their motives remain a mystery. DAVID CLARKSON reports.


Just why 33-year-old Ajeshni Healy and her partner, Kishor Singh, 55, burnt down their car repair business is still not clear.

GUILTY: Kishor Singh and Ajeshni Healy leave court last year.
GUILTY: Kishor Singh and Ajeshni Healy leave court last year.

Healy owned the business with her partner in life and business, Singh, an air traffic controller who has amassed a good deal of wealth.

That wealth - said to be about $4.2 million at the time of the fire in September 2008 - was a key factor in the scrap between two accomplished lawyers in District Court 6 over the last nine days.

Why would she and Singh have burnt down the business, which the Crown says was a financial liability? It was never clear.

There had been recent offers to buy it and they had turned them down. Torching it and making an insurance claim will have actually cost them money. The business' chattels were worth only about $35,000 and they had declined an offer of $160,000.

But Judge Alistair Garland said the jury had apparently accepted that there was a commercial motive when it returned its guilty verdicts after more than a day of deliberations.

Those deliberations appeared to include some detective work. The jury asked repeatedly to see pieces of surveillance videos which the officer in charge of the case, Detective Greg Brand, had brought together from several sources.

At the crucial times, that video was not good enough to identify people, or even cars, but the jury asked to see it again in detail and in slow motion. The members stared into the court's big flat-screen television to notice details that only they know about.

Juries don't have to explain themselves, and judges don't get to ask about how they arrive at their decisions.

But all this on-screen investigation did prompt Judge Garland to warn that they should be cautious about trying to make identifications from footage that had been officially assessed by an expert witness as not being clear enough for that.

Crown prosecutor Claire Boshier put forward a case that the couple had slipped away from the central city Stock Exchange bar for 38 minutes on the night of the fire, and a car similar to the one they were in could be seen near the scene of the arson on a security video.

The bar's security video showed them drinking there and watching an NRL game; it also showed that they were missing at the crucial time.

When that gap was revealed, they produced alibi evidence that they had gone to get some food at a kebab shop nearby, where Singh was the landlord.

The witnesses were called to the stand by defence counsel Pip Hall, and they gave their evidence, but Boshier pointed to inconsistencies and difficulties.

Their evidence differed from what Singh said, and she made the point that Singh had approached them later to tell them what date they should put in their letters to his lawyer.

The case had twist after twist. Hall suggested the arson could have been committed by someone else - an ex-employee, John Patrick Weir - who had the motive and the opportunity.

Weir denied it, though it was never put to him directly.

He denied defence allegations that he had made threats to torch the place, and that he had once tried to grab and kiss Healy. He was disgusted with that accusation, he said. He was a married man.

He had been out with his wife and children on the night of the fire, but about the time the fire happened he had been asleep on his couch in front of his television, which was showing the same league game that Healy and Singh had been watching.

The Crown called cellphone tracking evidence which they billed initially as showing that Singh and Healy were moving about and not in the central city as they said.

That misfired. The trial heard evidence that cellphones can be logged at unexpected cellphone towers for many reasons, not just because they are in the area.

In the end, the jury rejected allegations that someone else could have been responsible, deciding that the Crown had brought together a circumstantial case that was strong enough to prove the arson beyond reasonable doubt.

Singh and Healy will be sentenced on March 4. They have been on bail for four years without any problems, and Healy is breast-feeding her son at present.

Arson penalties are severe, but Judge Garland has signalled that if they express remorse and pay for the damage they could avoid a jail term and get home detention.

The Press