Man jailed for killing girl in fire


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The Independent Online

A South African man was jailed for life today after being found guilty of murdering a six-year-old girl by setting fire to her family's home.

A judge said "wicked and jealous" George Sithole, 41, would serve a minimum of 17 years behind bars for killing Dumo Sibanda.

He started the blaze which killed Dumo after being upset that his relationship with a friend of her family had ended.

In the hours and weeks before the fire, he accused Siphenphile Mercy Mlalazi, known as Mercy, of cheating on him and bombarded her with calls and text messages.

After buying petrol and matches, he went straight to the semi-detached house in Banks Road, Pound Hill, Crawley, West Sussex, where Ms Mlalazi was staying with Dumo's family.

Within minutes flames engulfed the house, forcing Ms Mlalazi and her friend Donald Sibanda to jump out of their separate bedroom windows at the front.

But Mr Sibanda's daughter, Dumo, whose bedroom was at the back of the property, died despite efforts by paramedics to resuscitate her.

Sithole denied starting the fire but jurors convicted him of murder today after more than two hours of deliberation at Lewes Crown Court.

Sentencing him, Judge Richard Brown described Sithole's account of events as "appalling nonsense" as he paid tribute to Dumo's family for their dignity throughout the trial.

The judge told Sithole: "I don't think I have ever heard such a pathetic attempt by a defendant to lie their way out of responsibility.

"Your wicked, jealous and criminal behaviour in 2004 cost little Dumo her life and has destroyed the lives of her parents and her family.

"You have shown absolutely no remorse for your actions. I have no doubt that when you bought the petrol and matches your plan was to kill Mercy and you knew that you were putting other lives at risk."

As the fire raged in the early hours of October 26 2004, jurors heard Sithole stood outside the house.

A paramedic said he seemed "unaffected by what was happening" while another thought he looked "dumbstruck and wide-eyed but was not showing any emotion".

Sithole evaded justice for seven years after he fled to his native South Africa but he was found and extradited back to the UK on March 16 this year.

He claimed he was spotted at the scene of the blaze because he had turned up to retrieve a spare key to his flat from Ms Mlalazi as he had lost his own.

Victim impact statements were read on behalf Dumo's parents, Donald and Sindisine, known as Sindi, who described the terrible toll the death of their only child has had on them.

Mrs Sibanda described her last words to her daughter on the phone, in which Dumo said: "I love you, Mummy" and she replied: "I love you more."

Her statement said: "Dumo was our only child, the only precious thing in our lives and her death is the most difficult thing that we have had to deal with.

"After the fire I watched my family fall to pieces." She said she blamed herself because she had returned to Newcastle the evening before the fire where she was training as a nurse.

All that had kept her going for the past seven years was the search for justice, she said. "It has been a painful journey that no parent should take."

Mrs Sibanda condemned Sithole for taking her daughter's life, saying she could not believe how he could kill a child he had known, and how she had wanted to believe it was an accident.

Her statement added: "He will get his sentence and serve it and get to go back to his family. What about my poor Dumo? It feels as if we did something wrong for being Dumo's parents."

CCTV cameras captured Sithole buying 1.8 litres of petrol from a Tesco garage and matches from the main store where he worked as a cleaner about half an hour before firefighters were called to the house.

He bumped into a colleague and told him he was buying petrol - which he had put into an empty Coke bottle - because his car had broken down.

Prosecutors said Sithole must have then gone straight from the petrol station to set fire to the house, which was ablaze within minutes.

Some time after 3am Ms Mlalazi woke to find her room full of smoke. She opened her door to go into the hallway but the smoke was too thick to escape through the front door.

After calling out to wake Mr Sibanda and Dumo, she leapt from her first-floor bedroom window. Meanwhile, Mr Sibanda had woken and rushed into Dumo's room but his visibility was obscured by the smoke.

He frantically fumbled around on her bed in an effort to save her but was forced to retreat because of the intensity of the smoke and heat.

Mr Sibanda also jumped from his bedroom window, thinking that he would try to re-enter the building and rescue his daughter by climbing up to her window.

Neighbours who saw the horror unfold brought a ladder to help him try to reach Dumo but the ferocity of the fire prevented it from being put up against the wall.

Sithole claimed he had tried to comfort Mr Sibanda as emergency teams dealt with the fire, telling him in Zulu: "She's going to be OK. Don't cry."

In evidence, he also said he came across Ms Mlalazi but that she shrugged off his attempts to hug her.

Ms Mlalazi and Sithole had been in a relationship for some months after meeting through a mutual friend, but by the summer of 2004 things had begun to deteriorate between them.

Ms Mlalazi was avoiding him, had stopped answering his calls and had begun a new relationship with a married man, jurors were told.

Prosecutor Alexandra Healy said Sithole became "jealous and possessive" and would call Ms Mlalazi up to three times a day, often in the middle of the night.

He also asked her to pay him back the money he had given her after lending her his bank card, and to return the car he had bought her.

Ms Mlalazi was looking after Dumo as Mrs Sibanda had returned to Newcastle for her training.

Dumo, who was off school due to the half-term holiday, went to bed at around 10pm after Ms Mlalazi had read her a bedtime story, and as usual her bedroom door was wedged open as she was afraid of being alone in the room with it closed.

Mr Sibanda returned home from work at around 10.30pm and did some washing and watched football on the TV before going to bed between 1.15am and 1.30am, while Ms Mlalazi had gone to bed at around 11pm.

Dumo's parents said Sithole's lack of remorse or account for his actions were a "further insult" to them.

In a statement issued through Sussex Police after sentencing, they said: "George Sithole was selfish enough not to deal with the consequences of his actions at the time.

"He refused to come forward when he knew he was sought for questioning.

"He also resisted the extradition process, which led to the extra delay in his coming to the UK for the trial to take place and allow us some closure.

"He has not once shown any contrition or remorse for his actions, and the fact that he continues to deny the offence is a further insult to us.

"However, we have maintained throughout our confidence in the police and the judicial system to bring this matter to a conclusion and to obtain a measure of justice for Dumo even after all this time.

"We give special thanks to the Sussex Police and the South African Police for following this matter to its conclusion and obtaining a measure of justice for Dumo.

"We do also thank the British and South African news media who have helped the course of justice by keeping Dumo's murder in the public eye over all these years."

Detective Chief Inspector Nick May, of Sussex Police, said; "We spent seven years hard work in solving this terrible crime, bringing Sithole back to the UK, and achieving justice for Dumo.

"We also pay tribute to Sindi and Donald Sibanda for the fortitude and dignity they have showed ever since the tragic death of their daughter, and for their determination to help seek the truth."