Lorry driver jailed for crashing fuel tanker into estranged wife's home
Monday 30 April 2012
An Army veteran who crashed a tanker laden with 2,000 litres of fuel into his estranged wife's home in an attempt to destroy it has been jailed for seven years.
Lorry driver Hugh Billington, 51, drove the seven-and-a-half tonne lorry loaded with kerosene through the front of the bungalow causing £235,000 of damage.
Christine Billington was in the kitchen when her husband mounted the pavement and crashed into the house.
She fled in terror and climbed over a wall into a neighbour's garden to escape the melee on the morning of January 20 this year.
As children with their parents walked past the bungalow on their way to school in Wool, Dorset, Billington attempted to raze the property to the ground by lighting kerosene he had poured around four rooms.
Billington, who had an "exemplary" record in nearly 25 years' service with the Household Regiment, then fled the scene.
Dorchester Crown Court heard that it was only good fortune that the tanker did not explode.
At an earlier hearing, Billington, of no fixed address, pleaded guilty to arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered, assault by beating, dangerous driving and theft.
He denied the more serious charge of arson with intent to endanger life, a plea that was accepted by the Crown and ordered to lie on file.
At the time of the incident, Billington was on bail for an allegation of domestic violence against his wife and was the subject of restraining order.
Passing sentence Judge Roger Jarvis said several senior Army officers had spoken very highly of Billington's service and this made this case "more tragic".
"So far as these offences are concerned you were at the time on bail," he said.
"Your behaviour towards your wife had already come to the attention of the authorities.
"You took a tanker with 2,000 litres of kerosene and drove it towards your former matrimonial home.
"On driving it into the house kerosene was released.
"The valves were fortunately not fully open and if they had and the fire had caught properly it needs very little imagination to imagine what would happen - there would have been an enormous bomb.
"What concerns me is that it happened when people are walking to school and that is a deeply troubling feature and shows how wickedly irresponsible you were."
As well as the jail term, Judge Jarvis banned Billington from driving for five years and imposed a restraining order banning him from direct contact with his wife indefinitely.
Prosecutor Jennie Rickman told the court that Billington and his wife had separated after 30 years and he would not accept the marriage was over.
He had moved out of their home the previous December and had been ordered by a court not to contact his wife or go to the marital home.
At 6.30am on the morning of the incident lorry driver Billington picked up the Watson Fuels tanker from his employer and drove to his former home in Folly Lane.
Mrs Billington, who is understood to run a dog-grooming business, was at home preparing to go to work when the tanker crashed through the bungalow at 8.45am.
Billington maintained that his wife had a routine and that she should have already left for work when he struck.
"Mrs Billington was in the kitchen and she heard and almighty crash as she entered the hall she saw the truck had gone through the front of the house and had made a hole in the wall," Miss Rickman said.
"As a result of that she went into the garden and over a wall into the neighbours' house and raised the alarm."
Billington had not expected his wife to be home and as he spread kerosene through the bungalow he checked she had fled.
Having also turned on the gas cooker, Billington then set light to the kerosene and ran off.
"After Mrs Billington ran out of the house Mr Billington started a number of fires," Miss Rickman said.
"From the basis of plea it is fair to say that the defendant knew Mrs Billington was not in the property."
Several witnesses had seen the unfolding incident and went to help, she explained.
Trevor Knott, an off-duty special constable, tried to apprehend Billington as he escaped on foot.
Mr Knott was unable to stop him as Billington assaulted him by kicking him.
Darren Fletcher, another witness, had also seen what Billington had done and he risked his own life by driving the fuel tanker out of immediate danger.
"It seems a fire was lit on the grass underneath the lorry and it was perhaps that which led him to get into the vehicle and reverse it back off the grass and on to the road," Miss Rickman said.
"Having done that he went to the house and tried to put the fires out but unfortunately the fire was too fierce."
About 30 firefighters tackled the blaze at the couple's bungalow, which suffered "significant" damage in the fire.
Three hours later police arrested Billington, who was wearing a boiler suit and a rugby shirt he had stolen from a washing line owned by Oliver Towers.
Upon his arrest he asked police: "Was anybody hurt?"
"Police attended his place of work found a note written by him which appeared to be written to his children," the prosecutor said.
The court heard that following the incident Mrs Billington has been left homeless with the fire destroying the bungalow and many of her possessions.
"She says she has been having nightmares and she has lost a lot of confidence," Miss Rickman said.
Timothy Shorter, defending, described Billington's "exemplary" military career and said that during the first Gulf War he worked as a medic treating injured servicemen arriving back at RAF Lyneham from Iraq.
"He is a man who for more than a quarter of a century served his country honourably," he said.
"But through one day's folly and stupidity he finds himself facing a substantial sentence of imprisonment.
"There are two words which perhaps sum up what happened to Mr Billington in those few hours immediately before the incident and they are his words: 'something snapped'.
"He is clearly a man who has served his country and clearly something snapped. During his lengthy prison sentence he has to find within himself why that happened.
"There is no doubt that Mr Billington is remorseful.
"He is someone who his whole life has been a leader of men and is someone that people looked up to.
"He knows what he did that day was thoroughly and ashamedly wrong and he knows it could have led to something worse.
"To put it bluntly he is very, very sorry for what happened that day."
Mr Shorter added: "Whatever this man did that day, which was wholly wrong, at least before he deliberately set the fires he had the common decency to check the house was empty."
As Judge Jarvis passed sentence he said it was only "good fortune" that the incident had not been more serious.
"It is in my view, that it is the most extremely good fortune that the incident was not more serious," the judge said.
"The impact upon Mrs Billington has been serious and profound and she had lost just about everything.
"I am told that you are full of remorse and so you should be. You have behaved in a very wicked way indeed.
"The offences are very serious offences indeed and if you had pleaded not guilty and had been found guilty I would have sentenced you into custody for 10 years.
"Having regard to your plea and what I have heard about you I sentence you to seven years' imprisonment."
The judge also praised the bravery of Mr Fletcher, who had reversed the tanker out of danger.
"Everybody needs to pay tribute to the actions of Darren Fletcher who must have realised there was some real risk to himself," he said.
"These are the actions of a very brave person."
Balding Billington, who was wearing a grey suit, white shirt and claret tie, showed no emotion as he was led away to start his sentence.
Mrs Billington did not wish to comment as she left court.
Speaking after the case, Ms Rickman, crown advocate of the Crown Prosecution Service in Wessex, said: "This has been an extreme example of domestic violence which caused significant damage to the property and presented a significant risk to the welfare of those near the property at the time, in particular those who came to the assistance of Mrs Billington.
"On Friday January 20, at about 8.45am, Hugh Billington, a lorry driver, drove a 7.5-tonne fuel tanker containing 2,000 litres of kerosene into the front wall of his estranged wife's home before starting a number of fires around both the tanker and inside the house.
"While he was running from the scene, an off-duty special constable, Trevor Knott, attempted to detain him but lost his grip when he was assaulted by the defendant. Billington pleaded guilty to this assault.
"The house is in a residential area close to a primary school and a number of families passed the house that morning on their way to school.
"It is fortunate that Mrs Billington was unharmed and no one else was seriously injured in this incident.
"A passing motorist, Darren Fletcher, on noticing a fire under the tanker, bravely climbed into the cab and reversed it away from the house and on to the road before attempting to put out the fire inside the house with the assistance of the special constable. However, the fire was too intense for them and soon after the fire brigade arrived and extinguished the blaze.
"It is clear that this was a very traumatic incident for Mrs Billington, who continues to suffer the effects of the events of that day, the loss of her home and the majority of her personal possessions.
"I hope that following the conclusion of this case, Mrs Billington can now start to rebuild her life."
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