Drifter is convicted over hostel blaze that killed 15

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The Independent Online

An Australian drifter with a history of psychiatric problems was convicted of murder and arson yesterday nearly two years after the Queensland hostel fire that killed 15 people, including seven Britons.

An Australian drifter with a history of psychiatric problems was convicted of murder and arson yesterday nearly two years after the Queensland hostel fire that killed 15 people, including seven Britons.

Relatives of the victims wept and shouted "Yes!" when a Supreme Court jury in Brisbane returned guilty verdicts against Robert Long, 38.

Long, who closed his eyes as the jury gave its decision, had denied setting the fire at the Palace backpackers hostel in the small country town of Childers in June 2000. The itinerant fruit picker will be sentenced by Mr Justice Peter Dutney on Monday after defence submissions. He faces mandatory life imprisonment under Queensland law.

Long was convicted of starting the fire that gutted the hostel, and of two specimen charges of murdering Kelly and Stacey Slarke, 27-year-old twins from Western Australia.

Their parents, Frank and Kerry Slarke, were in the public gallery to hear the verdict delivered by the jury of seven women and five men.

So, too, was the mother of 26-year-old Melissa Smith, from Thatcham, Berkshire, who died in the fire. Mrs Smith left the courtroom in tears.

The backpackers had gone to Childers to earn money to fund their travels by picking fruit and vegetables in the fertile farmlands that surround the town. One English survivor, Richard Tempest, said outside court: "We can start the healing process now, but it will never go away. It is with us every day."

The jury, who deliberated for nearly two days, heard evidence from more than 60 witnesses including survivors who flew in from Britain, the Netherlands and New Zealand.

Arson experts testified during the 19-day trial that the fire was started in the television lounge and spread to the first floor within 10 minutes.

Eight people died in one room because the sole exit was blocked by flames. Survivors squeezed through barred windows and crawled along smoke-filled corridors; many clambered on to neighbouring rooftops to escape.

Childers, a close-knit community, was devastated by the tragedy. Work has recently begun on demolishing the hostel, which will be replaced by a building that will include an information centre, art gallery and memorial.

Bill Trevor, the Mayor of Isis Shire, which covers Childers, was among those in court. "It's a relief for everyone that somebody will pay the price for taking those lives," he said.

"I feel for the parents who lost children. Not even this verdict can bring them back. Their hurt and pain are very clear," he said.

Among those who were killed were three Australians, two Dutch backpackers, one Irishwoman, one South Korean and a Japanese tourist.

Relatives in Britain welcomed Long's conviction. Ken Morris, of Cefn Coed, in south Wales, who lost his 28-year-old daughter, Natalie, said he was "over the moon". "This is a very emotional moment," he said. "Thank goodness it brings that side of things to an end. We've got to get on with our lives now as best we can and grieve for our daughter."

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