A man recently released from State care who caused some €23,000 damage in an arson attack on a Portarlington family business in a case of mistaken identity has been sentenced to seven years in jail, with the final two years suspended.
Before Portlaoise Circuit Court was Jordan Ruth (20), with an address in Portarlington, charged with arson, burglary, criminal damage and theft, on October 31, 2016.
At 1am on that date at Canal Road, Portarlington, the gardaí were alerted to a vehicle on fire outside the residence of the Phelans, a family involved in the coach hire business.
The car, a Nissan Silvia collectors item restored by its owner Aaron Phelan into showroom condition, was destroyed in the fire and totally burnt out.
At the time of the fire the car was advertised for sale at €11,000.
On reviewing CCTV footage the gardaí noticed the accused and a female getting into the car and setting it on fire.
The Phelans had a number of vehicles parked in the yard. The accused entered a shed in the yard to get tools in order to gain access to the vehicles.
Garda Paul Dooley, the investigating garda, told the court that it looked like the accused was initially attempting to steal the Nissan car which was burnt out. The CCTV apparently showed the accused becoming angry when he was unable to start the car and after breaking the steering lock on the car he proceeded to set the passenger seat alight. The fire went out and he went back and again set the car alight.
The car was parked close to a coach used in the Phelans coach hire business and the heat from the fire caused damage to the coach. The estimated cost of repairs to the bus amounted to €10,000.
The accused also broke into a Nissan Vanette vehicle in the yard and set fire to the passenger seat, causing €2,000 of damage. In addition, earlier in the night he had broken into other cars at a different location and stole a handbag, a radio and a wallet.
When apprehended by gardaí at 4pm on that date, the accused was in possession of a torch, rubber gloves, a stanley knife, a wind protected cigarette lighter, and a portable DVD player.
In interview, the accused said he had set fire to the vehicles because of a prior dispute he had with another party. It transpired that he had attacked the Phelans’ property in the mistaken belief that they were the party with whom he had the prior dispute. This act of revenge was undertaken against the wrong party.
Said Judge Keenan Johnson: “Even if one was to accept the accused’s explanation, the fact that he was going to mete out such a form of revenge to somebody whom he had perceived was in dispute with him or had slighted him is totally and utterly unacceptable.”
Judge Johnson noted that at a minimum the loss and damage sustained by all the victims as a consequence of the accused’s offending was around €23,200.
The offences were committed in the yard adjacent to the Phelans’ private residence, which at the time was occupied by Mrs Phelan.
Judge Johnson said the accused “was totally and utterly reckless” as to the safety of the occupants of the house. The fact that the bus parked close to the Nissan was significantly damaged showed just how easy the fire could have spread.
Judge Johnson said the Phelans have suffered a significant loss from the crimes and Mrs Phelan no longer feels safe in the house.
“The accused’s criminality has shattered Mrs Phelan’s sense of safety and security in her own home,” said the judge, noting that the family has been obliged to install further security measures and cameras to offer Mrs Phelan some reassurance.
In addition, Aaron Phelan gave evidence to the court saying that he was so dejected by what was done that he has given up his career as a mechanic.
“I sincerely hope that Aaron Phelan will reconsider matters and not allow the accused’s offending to dictate how he moves on with his life,” said the judge.
Judge Johnson said the accused has a substantial amount of previous convictions and is at a high risk of reoffending.
The accused was in State care until he was 18 and while in care committed a large amount of criminal damage offences. On his release from care he was brought to Portarlington and encouraged to become independent, but as he had no ties in the area he found it difficult to settle and continued to engage in criminality.
The judge imposed a seven-year sentence, with the final two years suspended for seven years on condition that the accused enter into a peace bond; he remain under probation supervision for 18 months; that he remain drink and drug free; he engage with all counselling services for his drink and drug addictions; and that following his release from prison he execute a standing order in favour of Aaron Phelan for a sum of €40 per week from his income for a period of five years, to achieve a figure of €10,400 compensation.