Arrest ends man's weekend of freedom after 23 years in jail for burning curtains

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The Independent Online

A man who has spent 23 years in jail for setting fire to curtains in a village church faced further punishment yesterday after failing to return from an unescorted outing.

David Blagdon could have his release date put back several years after being arrested on Monday night as he prepared to return to Sudbury open prison in Derbyshire.

During his brief taste of freedom after failing to return to the prison on Friday, he met campaigners to highlight his plight. But yesterday he was due to be transferred to the considerably grimmer conditions of Nottingham Prison after his arrest at a house at Alfreton, Derbyshire. He is threatening to go on hunger strike.

Anita Bromley, his solicitor, described the arson attack at the church at South Hinksey, near Oxford, in 1978 as a "cry for help". He had left prison that day after serving a sentence for another arson offence, to find the locks on the family council house had been changed.

He has not started any fires in prison, and at least two confidential medical reports since 1992 have concluded that he posed no threat to society. While he was free over the weekend, Blagdon spent two hours talking to a journalist from the Oxford Mail. He told the newspaper: "I have heard nothing from the Home Office about a new date for my parole board hearing, and I should have heard by last May.

"The prison authorities are also telling me that my girlfriend, Melanie Lancashire, has been seeing other men, and that her two children have been taken into care. I am determined to see her. I feel that I will never be released – the Home Office just use one delaying tactic after the other."

Melanie Lancashire, who lives in Alfreton, started writing to Blagdon in 1999 after reading about him in a newspaper, and has visited him in prison. She was not available for comment yesterday.

Ms Bromley said that she had managed to convince her client to return to prison on Monday evening, and had left him at Derby bus station with his fare to Sudbury. She described his situation as "a disaster.

"What has pushed him over the edge was the fact that he had formed a relationship with a female who wrote to him," Ms Bromley said.

"The Home Office took a very dim view of this relationship, because he wanted to get married, and they said it was an example of impulsive thinking, and of him not being stable enough to be released. He therefore needs to do yet another course on thinking skills. He just feels that it's another excuse not to release him."

Blagdon, the youngest of three illegitimate children whose mother was a certified patient at a psychiatric hospital, was 27 when he started the church fire. As a youngster, he suffered emotional and speech problems, and during periods in borstal he was described as an inadequate and damaged personality.

He had appeared in court on countless occasions for offences including assault, theft, burglary and blackmail, for which he received several prison sentences.

At the time of the offence he was still grieving over the recent deaths of his foster parents, who had died within two weeks of each other.

Blagdon pleaded guilty at the trial, but the judge, unable to detain him under the Mental Health Act, gave him a discretionary life sentence, the maximum for arson, robbery, rape and manslaughter.

Blagdon has absconded once before. Five years ago, he spent almost two months at large, during which time he got himself a job and a flat, before turning himself in.

A Prison Service spokesman said that a decision on whether Blagdon would face charges relating to his latest escape had yet to be made.