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CONVENIENCE STORE ARSON INVESTIGATION

A fire was discovered at 04:20 in an older style two storey brick and concrete terraced building, in a busy inner-city suburb. It comprised a shop on the ground floor trading as a greengrocery and convenience store, with an unoccupied residential flat above.   

 

The front of the shop had a hinged glass and wood door, which opened directly from the footpath, and the rear had metal roller doors facing onto a service laneway. The shop front also had plate glass windows either side of the door. The front door and windows were covered by metal roller shutters.   

 

The shop had two storage additions at the rear, incorporating a cold store. The first floor flat was accessible via a staircase from inside the shop, separated from the sales area by a door.   

 

Passers-by saw smoke coming from the first floor front windows and from the shop front at street level. Arriving firefighters had to cut padlocks to the front and rear roller shutters and force the mortise lock of the front door to get into the shop and storage areas, and force the internal door lock to reach the stairs. Another door between the shop and rear storage area was found closed but not locked.   

 

On examination, there was very heavy smoke staining throughout the shop with patchy superficial heat and flame damage to the ceiling. There were numerous localised areas of burning at lower levels on the display shelving, cash register counter and floor, with burning liquid run marks down the front of the counter.  The cigarette cabinet was found unlocked, open and empty with heat damage and smoke staining inside. This showed that it was like this during the fire.   

 

There was no burning in the upper floor flat, but the door from the shop to the stairs was a poor fit, and smoke had spread up to the flat and escaped from the front windows. 

 

Samples taken from each of the burnt areas were analysed at the laboratory and found to contain petrol residues. The limited burning and heavy smoke staining in the shop indicated that each of the small fires had flamed up briefly before dying down due to lack of ventilation.   

 

The relative locations of the separate areas of burning could not be explained by anything being introduced from outside the building, even if the roller shutters had not been lowered and the glazing intact. A narrow space between the cold store wall and the fence of the neighbouring building was eliminated as a possible access route into the back of the shop, avoiding the rear roller shutters. 

 

It was concluded that the fire was due to the distribution and ignition of petrol inside the shop by someone who accessed it using a key. 

 

The shopkeeper said that he was the only keyholder for the shop. He claimed to have locked up and left at around 22:00 the previous evening, leaving the full cigarette cabinet closed and secure. He said he had then gone to his home in a neighbouring suburb and was asleep until woken by police at around 05:00.   

 

Street CCTV examined later showed his van parked nearby between 03:45 and 04:05. Although it did not specifically show the shopkeeper going to or from the van, and no fuel container was found in the vehicle by police afterwards, it was considered strong circumstantial evidence of his involvement. He then said that a family member could have taken his keys and van while he slept, but this was not supported by additional police and factual enquiries.   

 

Correspondence found in the shop showed that the electricity was about to be cut off for non-payment and there were numerous outstanding bills for hire of drinks refrigerators and other equipment. 

 

The insurance claim was denied and the shopkeeper was charged with criminal offences.