Life for arsonist who put Wootton and Biddenham families at risk

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Old Groom Cottage where a family slept as Gentry set alight to their thatched roof

A Bedfordshire arsonist who put five people’s lives at risk and caused one and a half million pounds’ worth of damage in Wootton and Biddenham was give a life sentence today.

Alexander Gentry, 43, was told by a judge that he must spend at least seven years in jail before he can even be considered for parole.

He set three fires in the early hours of 8 January this year.

He targeted a farm at Wootton, a 300-year-old Grade ll listed thatched cottage, where a family was sleeping, and a vintage car museum at Biddenham.

Gentry, of Napier Road, Luton, appeared for sentencing after being found guilty of two charges of arson, being reckless as to whether life was endangered, and one charge of arson.

Prosecutor Will Noble said he had two previous convictions for arson. One from 1992 and the other from 2016.

On the night he started the fires, Gentry was angry that he was about to be evicted from his bail hostel in Luton.

Alexander Gentry
Alexander Gentry

He was staying there following his release from prison for the last arson offence and had been told he would have to move out of the hostel on 7 January.

Gentry left the hostel and “signed out” his four cigarette lighters which he had previously handed in.

Later that evening he turned up at the Fox and Duck pub in Wootton an area described as Mr Gentry’s “old stomping ground.”

When asked by a barmaid if he was still living in Luton, he replied that he had been “kicked out”.

Mr Noble said “He complained no-one would help him and he had nowhere to go and he would be better off in prison.”

He left the pub soon afterwards, made his way to Wood End Farm in Wood End Road, an 11-minute walk away.

Husband and wife, Richard and Fiona Frossell, who lived at the farm had carried out their usual check of their animals and barns between 10pm and 11pm before going to bed.

“Just after midnight she got out of bed because she couldn’t sleep and decided to close a window and saw huge flames coming from a Dutch barn filled with 300 straw half ton bales,” said the prosecutor.

The barn was close to a corn barn which, in turn, was beside the farmhouse where the husband and wife were sleeping and there was a real chance the flames could have spread to the house endangering the couple, said Mr Noble.

The fire took three days to burn itself out and caused £33,000 worth of damage.

Wood End Farm Arson damage 2019
One of the fires caused damage worth £33,000 at Wood End Farm

A fire investigator concluded the fire had been started by a naked flame being applied to straw in the barn, said Mr Noble.

From there Gentry made his way a distance of a 1000 metres to a 300 year old grade two listed thatched cottage in Green End Road called Old Groom Cottage.

Husband and wife Richard and Julie Porter were asleep in the cottage with their young son.

Mr Noble told the court that Gentry put a naked flame against a low hanging part of the thatched roof at a gable end.

At around 2am that morning the husband woke to discover the cottage on fire and, after waking his wife and child, all three were able to get out.

A 999 call was made to the fire service and Mr Porter tried to fight the fire with a hosepipe.

Then Gentry made his way to a vintage car museum off of Great Ouse Way in Biddenham.

The owner, Stephen Thomas, had built up a private collection of old and rare cars over the last 50 years and they were housed in a barn on the site.

Damage to the Vintage Car Museum in Biddemham is in excess of £1 million.

Having got into the barn, Gentry used a naked flame to set alight the roofs of a number of the vehicles resulting in a massive fire taking hold and causing damage worth “in excess of £1 million.”

The prosecutor said Gentry had links with two of the properties where fires had broken out.

He is said to have worked at the farm and had previously been allowed to live in the grounds of the museum in a caravan.

Mr Noble said it was also possible Gentry had mistaken the cottage he attacked for another one nearby that was owned by the Frossell family.

“He has an unhealthy fascination with fire and he vented his frustration that night by targeting properties from his past,” said the prosecutor.

Mr Noble said that, following the fires, Mr Gentry made his way to Bedford but later that morning returned to Wootton, where he was arrested.

The court was told he smelt strongly of smoke, had grass stains on his knees and his four lighters were seized from him.

Defending, David Wolchover said: “His principal problem is one of uncontrollable anger. This is a case of recklessness and not intent.”

Sentencing him, Judge Andrew Bright QC said: “You deliberately started three fires in quick succession. Each caused a huge amount of damage and two presented a significant risk to people living in or nearby the properties you set alight.”

The judge said he was passing a life sentence because he considered he presented a significant risk of committing serious offences.

He told him: “You must have known the occupants would have been asleep.”

He said Gentry would remain in prison until the parole board think it is safe for him to be released.

Detective Constable Gareth Jones, who led the investigation, said: “Gentry set fires that destroyed property worth almost £1.5 million, but more importantly, put people in serious danger and devastated their lives. Luckily, no one was injured.

“The sentence imposed on him today reflects the gravity with which we and the courts view arson, and he will no longer pose a risk to the county’s communities.”

Station Commander Lorraine Moore, from Bedfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: “We’re delighted that Gentry has been handed such a lengthy sentence and feel this reflects the severity of his offences.

“Tackling three simultaneous, intentional fires tied up a large number of fire service resources for a significant period of time.

“Gentry put the lives of several people at risk, both members of the public and firefighters. Fortunately no-one was hurt but his actions had a serious impact on the victims and I’m pleased that this has been recognised.”