Arsonist who killed 15 worked for fire service in prison release scheme

Australian authorities are investigating how one of the country's most notorious arsonists came to be let out of prison to work as a volunteer fireman for 10 years.

Reginald Lyttle, 50, is serving four life sentences for the murder of 15 people in an arson attack on a Sydney hotel in 1975. But, it emerged yesterday that he has been regularly let out of prison on a work-release scheme to help the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

The service suspended him from duty last week, and a spokesman, John Winter, said that he was "obviously not suitable to work in a fire fighting capacity, given his background". He said that applicants from prison rehabilitation programmes would, in future, be screened more carefully to ensure arsonists did not slip through the net. Mr Winter conceded, however, that "there has been nothing but positive feedback" on Lyttle's work in fighting fires under guard as part of regular day releases from St Heliers Correctional Centre, at Muswellbrook, north-west of Sydney.

Lyttle was staying at the Savoy Hotel in Kings Cross, Sydney's red light district, when he started a fire by setting bundles of newspapers alight with a cigarette lighter in the basement. Some 14 people died of carbon monoxide poisoning and another of extensive burns. Yet Lyttle had a history of arson convictions before then, including one for setting ablaze a shop in Newcastle, in New South Wales, and another for starting a fire on a billiard table at a club where he had recently been dismissed from a job.

The decision to allow him to volunteer for the fire service was made by prison authorities, and he was first given permission to participate in the day-release scheme in 1991, after achieving minimum security status. He worked initially for the Edinglassie Rural Fire Service in Muswellbrook, but was suspended after an outcry in 1993 despite havingbeen promoted to deputy captain of the service. He then began working for a volunteer brigade.

His day releases have been suspended by the NSW Corrective Services department, which moved him to another prison and said that his "participation in bush fire fighting activities is being reviewed".

Politicians and relatives of the Savoy Hotel fire victims expressed outrage yesterday, but a spokesman for Corrective Services said: "If we thought he was a risk to the community, there is no way he would be in that position. That he is now passionate about putting out fires rather than lighting them is a significant achievement."

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