Atherstone Trial
War of words intensifies as families speak out

By Steve Hayes 31/05 Updated: 06/06 08:09

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Buy photos » Firefighters at the scene of the Atherstone tragedy. (s)

THE FAMILIES of four firefighters killed in the Atherstone warehouse blaze say they are 'devastated' by the acquittal of three fire managers on manslaughter charges.

Timothy Woodward and Adrian Ashley were found not guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence on Wednesday (May 30).

Another watch manager Paul Simmons had earlier been cleared of manslaughter in relation to the November 2007 blaze on the direction of the judge, at Stafford Crown Court.

Firefighters Ashley Stephens, 20, John Averis, 27, and Darren Yates-Badley, 24, died in the massive fire. Ian Reid, 44, died later in hospital.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday (Thursday) family members of each of the four firefighters were unanimous in their criticism of the fire service and said they would always believe the men were guilty.

Ian Reid's wife, Julie, spoke of the heartache his death had caused her and their daughter Sophie.

She said: "I am devastated the jury reached a not guilty verdict thought I realise I have to respect their decision.

"All I ever wanted was answers as to what happened."

Mrs Reid criticised firefighters for not having the courage of conviction to say what happened during the investigation and spoke of the disrespect shown to the families of the deceased firemen during the trial by campaigners for the three defendants.

"The incident commanders should hang their heads in shame," she continued.

"It was a job Ian loved and it saddens me that the men he respected so much are the very men who let him down."

Emma Crocker, Ashley Stephen's fiancee, who was carrying his baby at the time of the blaze, was equally upset at the verdicts.

She said: "Ashley was the love of my life and he was taken from me.

"Having his son George asking where his daddy is and when he is coming home has been impossible.

"Warwickshire Fire and Rescue has not supported me in any way and the FBU have been disgusting. To me these men will always be guilty."

And Stephen Baylis, Darren Yates-Badley's father, said the bereaved families had been treated with contempt throughout the trial and said Darren's family still held the watch managers responsible.

But Warwickshire's chief fire officer Graeme Smith slammed police after the acquittals and said the force and the Chief Fire Officers Association would be writing to the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary to seek a formal investigation into why the men were prosecuted.

"I am very pleased that the case against our three incident commanders has so comprehensively collapsed and I expected nothing less," said Mr Smith.

"It is now clear that these cases should never have been brought to court.

"We will now be seeking assurances from ministers that prosecutions like this never happen again.

"Something went badly wrong with this case. It’s time for some answers."

Meanwhile the Warwickshire Police detective who led the case, Ken Lawrence, insisted the investigation was a success and said lessons could be learnt.

Warwickshire County Council said this morning (Thursday) that police made "unjustifiable comments" at the press conference

and council leader Alan Farnell responded: “I can understand how, in her grief, the wife of a fire fighter who has lost his life in a fire that was started deliberately might make these kinds of comments but it is unforgivable that the police should stage a public press conference designed to do nothing but cast doubt on the verdict of a British jury.

“A senior police officer has been quoted as saying he is “disappointed” that three Warwickshire fire fighters have been acquitted of the flimsy charges brought against them.

"This is simply outrageous. I will today be writing to the Chief Constable demanding an apology to the three fire officers and a clarification that the police acknowledge their complete innocence in the light of the jury’s unanimous not guilty verdict at court yesterday. If no such apology is forthcoming I will be referring the matter to the Police Authority.”

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