manslaughter | 

Man who killed friend after setting fire to home suspected of involvement in seven other incidents

Jimmy Thompson, who died from smoke inhalation, was found in the front bedroom of his Park View bungalow

Gary Magee

Jimmy Thompson

Paul Higgins

A man who killed a friend and neighbour when he set fire to his house was suspected of involvement in seven other fire-starting incidents, a court heard yesterday.

Newry Crown Court also heard that arsonist Gary Magee (44) “was severely injured and almost died” in the fire which claimed the life of Jimmy Thompson (62).

Mr Thompson, who died from smoke inhalation, was found in the front bedroom of his Park View bungalow, in the Cloughoge area on the outskirts of Newry.

Magee was rescued lying unconscious by the locked back door in the kitchen.

While the prosecution contend it is an aggravating factor that Magee started the fire despite knowing his friend’s health problems — including heart disease, coronary arterial disease and asthma conditions, which contributed to the death — it is accepted there was no falling out and no ill-feeling between the pair.

On the day he was due to go on trial for murder, Magee admitted manslaughter and to arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered.

In court, Magee sat in the dock flanked by prison officers while the family of his victim maintained a dignified silence in the public gallery.

Prosecuting counsel Fiona O’Kane said that on May 21, 2021, a neighbour of Mr Thompson alerted the fire service when he saw smoke coming from a bedroom window.

Firefighters arrived within nine minutes of the call and found that both the front and back doors were locked.

When they gained entry, Mr Thompson was found slumped unconscious in a seated position in the front bedroom, while Magee was found lying on the kitchen floor, his clothes pulled up covering his face.

Mrs O’Kane said that despite “vigorous CPR” done in rotation between the PSNI, Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and paramedics, sadly Mr Thompson could not be revived.

Magee was taken first to Daisy Hill Hospital and then transferred to the intensive care unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.

The cause of Mr Thompson’s death was established as smoke inhalation and the pathologist said that would have been exacerbated by Mr Thompson’s various health conditions.

An examination of the scene by a senior fire investigator found there were three separate seats of fire — one each in the two bedrooms and one in the living room — and that no accelerant or propellant had been used.

He said that as a hole had been burnt through the bedroom door, he believed the fire would have been lit around 30 minutes beforehand.

Jimmy Thompson

Mrs O’Kane said police enquiries established that both Mr Thompson and Magee were smokers and, in the living room, crime scene investigators found lots of partially smoked, hand-rolled cigarettes.

Forensic fire experts conducted experiments to establish whether discarded, lit cigarettes could have been responsible for starting the fires, but their findings were that each seat of fire, the main one being in the rear bedroom, had been started deliberately.

During police interviews, Magee said he could remember “drinking Guinness with Jimmy” but had no recollection of setting any fires.

He said there was no animosity between himself and Mr Thompson, a man he considered to be a friend with whom he frequently drank alcohol, and claimed that a burn on his hand related to an incident the day before the fire in the bungalow.

Magee conceded, however, that “there was no one else there and that it must have been either the deceased or himself who started the fires”, said Mrs O’Kane.

She revealed that Magee is “associated” with seven other incidents of fire-starting but that he was not prosecuted for those.

Turning to other aggravating factors, Mrs O’Kane revealed that Magee has amassed 115 previous convictions, including relevant entries for “pretty much the full panoply of offending, with the exception of sexual offending”.

She further revealed that at the time of killing Mr Thompson, Magee was subject to a probation order and a suspended sentence.

She said other aggravating features included the fact that Mr Thompson was vulnerable and in ill-health, was killed in his own home and the offences were committed when Magee was under the influence of alcohol and cannabis.

Mrs O’Kane said that while Magee did admit his guilt, any credit to be afforded to the arsonist killer should be tempered as he was effectively “caught red-handed”.

Defence KC Gregory Berry said: “Mr Magee acknowledges the devastation caused by his actions… He fully accepts his responsibility.

“We say and submit that he is remorseful,” said the senior barrister, emphasising that Magee “has difficulty understanding how this has come about” and how he caused the death of a man “he would have had a drink with and whom he had no reason to harm”.

Turning to Magee’s personal background, Mr Berry said it was clear that he had lived a “chaotic lifestyle” where his life was blighted by addictions to alcohol and drugs, which lead to the majority of his offending.

Remanding Magee back into custody, Madam Justice McBride said there had been a “wealth of material” put before her which she wanted to consider before sentencing.

Madam Justice McBride then adjourned the case to December 14.

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