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Alan Graham Brown (54) admitted lighting a fire in a bedroom of the 19th-century one-time stately home in Pitt St last May, causing almost $60,000 damage to the building and costing one of the occupants more than $6000 in the loss of uninsured property, including musical instruments, a laptop and irreplaceable music composition notes.
Sentencing Brown in the Dunedin District Court yesterday, Judge Michael Crosbie said the facts of the case were a reminder to landlords and students, in particular, of the immeasurable value of fire and smoke alarms. He had no doubt that, in the particular case, the alarms had saved lives.
Brown pleaded guilty before trial on one charge of intentionally damaging the house by fire on May 8 last year.
He and an associate, Peter Curran, lived on the first floor of the wood and brick house, while seven students occupied the ground floor rooms and shared a kitchen, lounge and bathroom facilities.
On the evening of May 8, the students were alerted to the beeping of a smoke alarm. They initially thought the noise was from a television programme they were watching.
But when they went into the hallway they saw a rear bedroom was ablaze. They abandoned thoughts of trying to put out the fire, called the Fire Service and set about getting everyone out of the building. Brown and Mr Curran were both intoxicated and had only just gone to bed after a heavy drinking session. The students had to force the door to Mr Curran's room, to get him out and, once outside, he ran back in to rescue the house kittens.
He was overcome with heat and smoke and had to be rescued from the first floor but he and the kittens suffered no lasting effects. The firefighters extinguished the fire only minutes before it would have taken hold of the entire building. They told police they believed the blaze was suspicious.
Brown was interviewed 10 days later and denied any knowledge of the fire's origin but, about two weeks later, he confessed he had lit it. He said he had been struggling with mental health issues and wanted to seek help, something he said he should have done 20 years ago.
At sentencing yesterday, John Westgate said Brown appeared motivated to make changes. He had used his time productively in prison and had re-evaluated his life. But Mr Westgate said it was probably unrealistic to order reparation.
Judge Crosbie told Brown it was ''naive'' for him to say he wanted to come out of prison and get on with his life.
With five pages of criminal convictions, three now for arson, and the majority involving alcohol, he must have a serious addiction.
His actions had caused huge loss to the young man whose property was not insured and the owner of the house was shocked when she saw the results of the fire. She was also shocked because Brown had appeared substantial and polite and she was very distressed at damage caused to precious personal effects in the house.
The judge sentenced Brown to two years and nine months' jail and, while ordering reparation would be akin to ''writing on water'', he said Brown should have to pay something. He directed payment of $6000 reparation to the university student who lost everything and a $15,000 contribution to the costs of the insurers.