Philpott fire trial: Guilty of manslaughter, but circumstances of the blaze remain largely unknown


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The Independent Online

Warning: Contains strong language

In the above audio Mick Philpott and his wife can be heard discussing the petrol can.

Barring a prison cell confession no one will ever know who poured the petrol or lit the match which started the fire which claimed the lives of the six Philpott children.

Detectives investigating the fatal blaze have described the arson as a collective act of breathtaking recklessness and stupidity carried out by three “devious liars”.

But at the centre of any calculation has been the character of Mick Philpott, an unemployed father of 17, described by senior officers as an unpredictably dangerous man whose extraordinary narcissism readily alerted police to his controlling role in the tragedy.

The events that unfolded on the early hours of 11 May last year within the cramped inter-war council house on Victory Road remain largely unknown.

Philpott, his wife Mairead and best friend Paul Mosley, known as Shakey, had spent the proceeding evening in a fug of cannabis, sex and snooker. They stuck assiduously to their version of events – either refusing to answer questions or falsely insisting the fire was started by the family of estranged mistress Lisa Willis.

However, the first indications that this gut-wrenching tragedy was even more sinister than first feared surfaced almost immediately.

The Philpotts were unaccountably clean for a couple that had fought to rescue their six young children from a choking, smoke-filled house. Mairead was completely physically unaffected by the fire whilst Philpott had nothing more than a small amount of the reddening of the skin.

It fell to neighbours to demonstrate true heroism, risking their lives as Philpott smacked ineffectively with a child’s tennis racquet on a double glazed window.  Forensic analysis revealed that the petrol, of a type sold at Total garages, had been poured not through the letterbox of the uPVC front door but from within the hallway.

The timing of the fire was also suspicious –coinciding with a crucial court appearance in the acrimonious battle between Philpott and Ms Willis for custody of their five children.

But the investigation was hampered by a lack of witnesses. Mairead’s anguished 999 call was made at 3.46am when no one was around.

The immediate public reaction was one of horror. Jobless Philpott was a well-known figure in the working class Derby suburb of Allenton. He was a man who divided opinion after his notorious television and newspaper appearances that had seen earned him the tabloid nickname Shameless Mick.

In the grim aftermath of the fire neighbours, friends and foes rallied round and money poured in to stage a fitting funeral for the youngsters. But witnesses from the scene of the blaze began raising questions over Philpott’s strange behaviour.

He seemed convinced that the children were all in one room at the back of the house. It was here that he had planned they would be rescued by Mosley though. But the bodies were found in all three upstairs bedrooms.

The children died from the effects of smoke inhalation caused by the rapid burning in the hallway and the “chimney effect” of rushing air sweeping in the lounge downstairs window and billowing out of an open window upstairs.

His conduct at the mortuary where the children’s bodies were being kept was also erratic including engaging in “horseplay” by grabbing a family liaison officer around the neck, pretending to faint (although always falling into the recovery position) and a mood which oscillated between furious anger and apparent indifference.

All agreed that he seemed to be enjoying the attention. It was an observation also made by ACC Stephen Cotterill, who had couched his words carefully in appeals following the fire describing Philpott’s attempts to rescue his children as “apparently valiant”.

An officer of 30 years’ experience, Cotterill admitted that whilst it is hard to define what constitutes normal in the midst of a tragedy of such magnitude it was apparent that Philpott was acting unusually.

“I have more or less given up trying to explain his behaviour. It doesn’t fit within the limits of normality. I believe any parent would have made the ultimate sacrifice in those circumstances. He didn’t,” said the senior officer.

At its height there were 88 police officers working on the case. More than 5,000 statements taken and 2,410 exhibits seized.  Police arrested Miss Willis the day after the fire along with her brother-in-law Ian Cousins although they were quickly discounted as suspects. There was little love lost between Cousins and Philpott – not least after he had made false claims on Facebook that he had been having an affair with Ms Willis – herself the subject of erroneous and theatrically staged claims by Philpott that she had threatened him and his family.

Philpott had been laying the foundation work for what became the central motive in the case: his attempt to frame his former lover whose decision to walk out on him had humiliated him and left him furiously flailing for revenge.

Yet in the absence of any evidence against him police made little progress. The Philpotts were being accommodated at a Premier Inn close to the mortuary and police had installed covert listening equipment to monitor the couple’s conversations.

Mick Philpott meanwhile had been unusually insistent to hold a press conference. He wanted to run his own media campaign believing it would offer the same knock-about experience he had so enjoyed on Jeremy Kyle.

On 16 May 80 journalists were assembled at a hotel in Derby. Police had agonised over whether to allow the event to go ahead. In the end it lasted just a couple of distraught minutes in which the overwhelmed couple stared into the flashing cameras.

After what was described by senior officers as a “shameful” appearance in front of the media, Philpott again pretended to collapse back stage though by now police were listening in on the couple’s conversations in which they discussed “sticking to their story”. The tapes also revealed Mairead and Mosley having sex to cement the lethal bond between them.

Forensic evidence began to stack up against the couple too. Petrol was found on clothes belonging to Mick and on leggings and a thong owned by Mairead. More petrol was found in the U-bend of the kitchen sink.

The Philpotts were arrested and charged with murder. Later another witness Melissa John, the partner of Mosley’s nephew, came forward to describe how he had confessed to having staged a rehearsal of the fire six weeks before the blaze. On 5 November Mosley too was charged with the children’s murder.

In the end the Crown Prosecution Service proceeded with manslaughter charges. Although incomprehensibly stupid, investigators concluded the couple had not meant to kill their children – hatching a plan to hit back at their enemies and turn themselves into both victims and heroes among their local admirers.

Those close to the case said the three showed no genuine remorse at any stage in the investigation and believed throughout that they would get away with it. But at Nottingham Crown Court today, a jury concluded they had lied.

“This is the saddest case I have ever dealt with. It is the most tragic case. I have felt very angry at the loss of life,” observed ACC Cotterill. “There are six little children that have not have not got the chance to grow up.

“Six empty chairs must have been horrendous for the teachers and the children. How do you tell them they won’t be here tomorrow or next Monday because their mum and dad have chosen to a light a fire at the bottom of the stairs and killed them?” he said.