Valley caught in a vortex of revenge nsolved murders split a community

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The Independent Online
ON THE rare occasions when Myra Jones leaves home alone, she repeatedly checks over her shoulder for potential assailants. She has done so ever since the collapse of a case against the alleged arson killers of her daughter and two little grandchildren.

This is justice on Gurnos, a rundown estate near Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, where being a victim is no defence against prejudice and hatred. Here, on 11 October 1995, Diane Jones, 21, and her daughters, Shauna, 2, and Sara Jane, 13 months, died in a fire caused by someone poured petrol through the front door and setting it alight. The estate is being torn apart because those initially convicted of the killings have now been freed.

Donna Clarke, now 29, her aunt, Annette Hewins, 33, and their friend, Denise Sullivan, were arrested after police discovered that Clarke had an affair with the victim's husband, Sean Hibberd. He had returned to Diane; the attack, the theory went, was based on jealousy.

Clarke and Hewins were found guilty of arson with intent to endanger life and jailed for 20 and 13 years. Sullivan got four years for attempting to pervert the course of justice.

But journalists and lawyers began to highlight inconsistencies in the case - there was no witness or scientific evidence linking any of them with the scene. And a cola can containing petrol found near the house bore the fingerprint of a son of one of Hibberd's rivals.

In February, Hewins had her conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal; Sullivan's sentence was reduced and she walked free. The judge chosen to hear Clarke's retrial ruled in April that to do so would be to subject her to "double jeopardy". To the fury of the Jones family, he freed her, ordering the case to lie on police files, a non-solution that satisfies neither Clarke, who insists she is innocent, nor the Joneses, who had trusted in the first trial jury.

The verdicts and appeals have plunged the Gurnos community into a whirl of suspicion and violence that both sides say could end in more deaths. Within a week of Clarke's release, a gang burst into the home of her 50- year-old mother, and kicked and beat her unconscious, telling her: "That's for Donna." Several people have been charged. Shortly afterwards - on what would have been Diane Jones's birthday - her parents were walking to the cemetery when they encountered Denise Sullivan and her boyfriend. An ugly scene followed, which cannot be fully described for legal reasons, but required police action.

Mrs Jones was arrested again after Annette Hewins found death threats on a telephone answering machine. Mrs Jones denies making the threat and Mrs Hewins has told The Independent she believes her. But bricks have been hurled through windows, words have been exchanged and, last Tuesday, several men were charged with disorder after a running battle between rival sides.

"I can't believe this will ever end," said Mrs Jones. "I was devastated when they let them go. It destroyed me. I've had two strokes since Diane's death and my family has been torn apart. There are people who laugh as they go by in cars, who spit and put up two fingers at us. [One person] reported a burglary at a pub where we were celebrating my father's 80th birthday, so the police turned up in force. You can only take so much of that. It hurts me to think someone can kill my daughter and grandchildren and yet no one pays."

The Jones and Hibberd families say they have been betrayed by the legal system. "We are being subjected to provocation we can't take," said Bernard Hibberd, 48, the dead children's grandfather. "I'm afraid the violence will increase. My 18-year-old lad has 50 stitches in his head ... Someone is going to get killed if it carries on."

Donna Clarke has been rehoused at a secret address in a nearby town. After three and a half years in prison, she is rebuilding ties with her daughter, Shauna, 8, and son Ryan, 12.

"I know they don't believe us, but we didn't do it; we're innocent," she said. "I can only imagine the awful sense of loss the Joneses feel. They have lost their daughter and their grandchildren and they need to direct their anger at someone. That is us but we won't rest until we find out who really did this.

"We're all terrified too. The police have given me a panic button but it doesn't stop me worrying about my children. I'm really scared for them. I'm afraid someone else will be killed before this is all over, and it will only be over when we've proved it wasn't us. I want a retrial to clear my name."

Across the valley at another secret address with a panic button, Annette Hewins is a nervous wreck. "I thought that when my conviction was quashed, people would come up to me and say, `Hey, we're sorry we ever thought you were involved in this' and give me a hug and I would say, `Come on, let's work at this together to get the people who really did it'," she said.

"It was a sort of dream view of how I saw the future, but I guess it was a little naive."