Two Norwich teenagers found guilty of Phoenix Centre arson
Two Norwich schoolboys have been found guilty of starting the fire which gutted a treasured community centre in Mile Cross.
The friends, aged 15 and 16, set fire to condoms wedged into discarded sofas at the Phoenix Centre last December, but saw the blaze spread to the building as the “schoolboy prank” turned to tragedy.
The fire on December 15 last year forced the centre to close, causing more than £60,000 of damage and leaving charities and voluntary groups without a home over Christmas.
The two teenagers were yesterday found guilty of arson following a day-long trial at Norwich Magistrates’ Court, though District Judge Peter Veits rejected a request from the Eastern Daily Press for permission to name the defendants, ruling that it was not in the public interest to reveal their identities.
The pair, who had both denied arson, will be sentenced on July 30 after reports have been written, though Mr Veits warned them that he was “not ruling any sentencing option out”.
The friends accepted being at the centre of the time of the fire, though each blamed the other for having started it – but the district judge told them he believe they “were both fully involved”.
“I take the view that this is a prank gone wrong, but it’s gone very wrong for everyone, including the centre and including you,” he said, acknowledging the pair had “developmental needs”.
The court heard that the two boys had met up on the night of the fire and visited another friend’s house, telling her they planned to “burn condoms down at the Phoenix Centre”.
When she was unable to join them, they left her house and went around the back of the Phoenix Centre on Mile Cross Road.
There they opened more than a dozen condoms, the packets of which were found in bushes nearby, and placed them in and around four sofa chairs which had been left behind the centre to be thrown away.
During the trial, each boy claimed the other had started the fire. They said it got out of control and when they were unable to put it out, they had fled the scene.
Later that evening the friend they had visited saw news of the fire on Facebook and contacted them to find out if they were responsible, eventually alerting a manager at the Phoenix Centre.
Witnesses told police they had seen two boys acting suspiciously near the centre at the time the fire was started.
Jude Durr, for the older boy, said he was of previous good character and that the scheme had been an “ill-conceived teenage idea”, while Dave Foulkes, for the younger boy, asked for his client’s “vulnerabilities” to be taken into consideration.
Mr Veits said: “No matter who set the fire, my view is that they were both equally involved. They both knew what they were going for, neither tried to stop the other and both left the scene making no attempt to alert neighbours or the fire service.”
When they arrived, firefighters tried to contain the fire but the blaze caused severe damage to the building, destroyed a third of the roof and damaging the centre’s main community rooms, toys and equipment.
However, the fire also provided a chance for the community to show its strength, and donations, including cash, computers, toys and paint came flooding into the centre, allowing it to quickly get back on its feet and host a Christmas party just a week later.
Phoenix Centre trustee Peter Lemmon welcomed yesterday’s verdict.
He said: “I’m glad that something has been done about it. I don’t think they really knew what they were doing when they did it.
“I hope they will learn from it and it will teach them a lesson.
“It seems a long time since it happened in December, but on a good note, building work has nearly finished.”
Both boys must obey curfew orders until they are sentenced, and must be home by 9pm every night, must not contact each other or be in possession of lighters or flammable substances.