On 8th August, Gordon Thompson was with a group of rioters who broke into Reeves Furniture Store, Croydon. While they were there, he stole a laptop. As they left, he was heard to say: “Let’s burn the place”, and asked, “Who’s got a lighter?” Someone handed him a lighter, he lit it, and set fire to a sofa in the window display.
Furniture is flammable. The whole building burned to the ground. Thompson was arrested when he was identified from a picture on the front page of the Croydon Advertiser. He claimed he was planning to turn himself in: he initially denied arson but in court he pleaded guilty to burglary and “arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered”.
That crime – burning a 19th-century business to the ground – was one of the most spectacular crimes of the London riots last August. But from the evidence in court it was a crime committed literally on impulse – the prosecution failed to support charges of “arson with intent to endanger life” or of violent disorder.
House of Reeves was founded in Croydon in 1867 and had survived two World wars. The street on which it stood was named after the family business.
Mr Glasgow said: “As a result of the fire, the damage initially estimated to the House of Reeves is just over £1m.
“The damage occasioned to House of Fraser is just over £105,000. That’s loss of property stolen, as well as damage to a shutter and plate glass window.
“As a result of the fire, the overhead tram lines and the tramlines themselves suffered serious damage and the costs to Transport for London in repairing that were just under £330,000.”
Arson is a crime which is rightly treated much more seriously than most crimes against property (crimes against property tend to be treated more seriously than violent crimes against people, which is disturbing). People who want to set fire to things are often repeat offenders even if they’re caught – though the judge does take into account in his sentencing notes that the act of arson was committed under unusual circumstances, Thompson hadn’t offended that way before and seemed unlikely to do so again. While I consider it more than possible that Gordon Thompson didn’t think what a huge fire a roomful of furniture would start, what he did was recklessly stupid, caused huge damage, risked firefighters’ lives and the lives of people living nearby, and he deserves to go to jail.
What he doesn’t deserve is a sentence of 11 and a half years. Not even though:
Thompson has 20 previous convictions, including one for violent robbery, but said he became involved in the riots because he was depressed about his divorce.
- Intentional / reckless
- Motivation revenge or political
- Use of accelerants / firebombs.
- Injury caused.
- Extent of damage.
- Risk of fire spreading.
- Dwelling attacked.
- Public building / school attacked.
Reckless – aggravating
No evidence of either – mitigating
Apparently not – mitigating.
No – mitigating
None mentioned in reports of sentencing – Though there easily might have been. It was luck & firefighting expertise that no one was killed.
Considerable. And it did. Aggravating.
Not directly. But the flames spread.
No – mitigating
The longest two sentences in the CPS’s guidelines are:
A-G’s Reference No 68 OF 2008 (MYRIE)
Pleaded guilty to arson reckless as to whether life was endangered. The defendant put petrol through the letterbox of a house in a revenge attack following a road rage incident. Family evacuated and £7K damage. Upper end of arson reckless. 6 years appropriate, 2 and a half years increased to 4 and a half years due to double jeopardy.
R v Bakjinder Singh Bal  1 CR.APP.R.(S.) 52 The appellant pleaded guilty to arson, being reckless as to whether life was endangered. The appellant following an argument set fire to his wife’s clothing and texted her to tell her what he had done. There was no one else in the house, the fire did not spread and it extinguished itself. Held 4 years reduced to three.
If putting petrol through the letterbox of a dwelling where you know people are living, and setting fire to it out of revenge for road-rage merits an “upper end” sentencing for arson with reckless endangerment, why does setting fire to a sofa with a cigarette lighter handed to you merit 11.5 years?
Thompson was jailed for 11 and a half years for the arson, two years each for two counts of burglary, and three years for a third count of burglary, to run concurrently.
Judge Peter Thornton told him: “This was a deliberate, wilful act of shocking, dangerous vandalism. The Reeves family lost their historic business, something they, and generations before, had lived and worked for all their lives. Their loss is priceless. The trauma they have suffered is inestimable.” (Sentencing notes here.)
Adam Davis, QC, for Thompson, said his client had expressed deep regret for what he had done.
“He wanted me, on his behalf, to apologise to all those involved and in particular the Reeves family for what happened as a result of his reckless actions and apologise for the loss that he has caused them, a loss that he could not have foreseen.”
Being depressed about your divorce isn’t an excuse. Saying you’re sorry for the damage you’ve done doesn’t mean much after you burned down a building and could have killed people. But 11 and a half years for arson still seems totally out of line. Sentencing for the riots last summer has been heavily politicised. Judges have been playing Daily Mail politics at the direct request of the Conservative government.
And that isn’t right either.