Hospital Arsonist Jailed

A man who deliberately started fires at two Kent hospitals to cause a distraction so he could steal cash has been jailed.

Thomas Ashcroft, 35, of no fixed address targeted the Medway Maritime and the Kent and Canterbury hospitals last summer, causing disruption, confusion and fear to patients and staff.

The 35-year-old - who has appeared in court 65 times for 150 offences - admitted charges of arson and burglary over the incidents and another at a hotel in Sheffield. He also asked for eight further matters to be taken into consideration by the judge at Canterbury Crown Court relating to arsons and burglaries at other hospitals, hotels and a visitor attraction across Britain.

Prosecutor Martin Yale said Ashcroft's reign began when he was released from prison last summer after being sentenced to 12 months for burglary. On July 14, just weeks after his release, he burgled Rotherham District General Hospital in South Yorkshire.

The following day, he set fire to a quilt in a housekeeping storage room at the Hilton Hotel in Sheffield, triggering the automatic sprinkler system, which flooded the area and cost the hotel £3,000 in repairs and compensation for guests.

Days later, on July 20, Ashcroft's probation officer issued a recall notice after he failed to abide by the conditions of his release.

But the following day, he targeted the Midland Hotel in Manchester, setting light to a cleaner's trolley, which resulted in another evacuation.

Ashcroft's campaign was interrupted when he was arrested for shoplifting in Blackburn, Lancashire, on July 26 and returned to custody before being released just under four weeks later.

He then travelled south to Sussex, where he set three fires in Brighton city centre, another at the Hilton Hotel at Gatwick Airport and one at Crawley Hospital.

On August 29th he turned his attentions to Kent and the 600 bed Medway Maritime hospital in Gillingham.

Mr Yale said a housekeeping store cupboard was set alight. Some patients and staff were evacuated, and the cost of the damage was said to have run to up to £15,000.

Then on August 30, Ashcroft targeted a third hospital - the Kent and Canterbury, when a fire was suspected to have been set among clothes in the chaplain's office.

Five out of six wards were occupied by dozens of patients and staff at the time. Later, staff noticed that around £25 had been stolen from the restaurant. However, the cost to the fire brigade was more than £2,000.

With the situation "spiralling out of control'', Ashcroft surrendered himself by telephoning police in Ramsgate the following day, saying he believed he had been recalled to prison.

One of the arresting officers recognised him from a picture circulated by a senior officer relating to the arsons and burglaries, and he was arrested.

Mr Yale said: "Ashcroft said that he committed the crimes to fund his drug addiction which cost about £250 a day. He said that he travelled around by train and set the fires close to smoke detectors so that they would be detected quickly.

Sentencing him to eight years, Judge James O'Mahony said it was hard to "understand the evil'' of putting lives at risk for relatively small sums of cash, amounting to just under £25 in one incident.

He told Ashcroft: "You are a man seriously addicted to heroin and crack cocaine. You have a huge number of previous convictions over the years, many of them for burglary.

"The real gravity of what you did was this: in order to steal some trifling amounts of money because you wanted drugs, you set fire to three hospitals, having taken great care to get into the premises and identify them, work out where to set fire, cause evacuations, and thus enabling yourself to steal."

The judge said that "mercifully'' no-one was killed but he added that "things could easily have gone wrong'' and there was "real danger'' to people in the premises he targeted, including cancer patients.

Detective Inspector Lee Whitehead, of the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate, said after the sentencing: ``Ashcroft put the lives of hundreds of people in danger to steal money to finance his drug habit.

"His actions were not only criminal, but entirely selfish and it has cost thousands of pounds to rectify the damage he has caused.

"To force cancer patients to abandon their treatment is nothing short of sickening and Ashcroft should be ashamed for causing stress and anxiety to those who are fighting serious illness.

"It is pure testament to the staff at the various establishments targeted and the prompt reactions of the fire service that nobody was hurt, seriously injured or killed.''

Kent Fire and Rescue Service's director of service delivery, Steve Griffiths, said: "Any deliberate act of fire-setting is dangerous and KFRS hopes the jail sentence given today will deter others from this potentially deadly act.

"While these were small fires, there is no doubt that the quick response and actions of our crew prevented them from turning into a major incident.

"Our investigators worked closely with Kent Police and the link was soon established, leading us to implement extra precautions at these sites.

"Hospitals are, by their very nature, inherently safe buildings with robust fire precautions built in. We have an excellent, long-standing relationship with healthcare partners and we thank their staff and the public for being so vigilant during that period.''