In the aftermath of a catastrophic fire which destroyed a Sydney nursing home, killing 11 frail, elderly residents, Roger Dean, a nurse at the home, appeared on national television, describing how he had helped to rescue those trapped inside. “I just quickly did what I could to get everyone out,” he said.
Today he pleaded guilty to a crime few could comprehend: starting the fire which killed three people outright and claimed eight more lives in the ensuing weeks, as survivors died from severe burns and smoke inhalation.
Relatives of the 11 victims, who ranged in age from 73 to 96, wept in the public gallery of the New South Wales Supreme Court as Dean, dressed in a dark suit, quietly stated "guilty" to each charge. One woman ran out of court, sobbing. Outside the building, family members clung to each other and cried.
Dean, 37, is now effectively a mass murderer, one of Australia's worst. What prompted to him to set two fires inside the home in November 2011 - one in the room of two women, Dorothy Wu, 85, and 80-year-old Dorothy Sterling, who he knew were incapable of moving unaided - remains unclear. He had been working at the home for only two months.
More may emerge when prosecution and defence lawyers offer sentencing submissions. Dean - who admitted stealing painkillers the night before the fire - had previously denied the murder charges, changing his plea on the first day of his trial. Today he also admitted recklessly causing grievous bodily harm to eight other residents of the nursing home in Quakers Hill, in western Sydney.
Among those who died was 90-year-old Neeltje Valkay, whose daughter, Elly, said after the hearing that the pair had been close. "I saw her six days a week," she said. "I still do the wrong left-hand turn to go home and go past the nursing home.
"There has been upheaval in our family because we miss her so much. There have been nights of no sleep, nights of taking a sleeping pill to get the nightmares out." Ms Valkay had hoped, she said, that Dean would stand up in court todday and plead guilty to all charges. "My prayers were answered."
More than 80 residents were in the nursing home at the time it was engulfed by flames. Although it had fire extinguishers and fire doors, it did not have a sprinkler system. Sprinklers are now mandatory in nursing homes across New South Wales, and staff are subject to criminal screening.
Gary Barnier, managing director of the company which owned the home, said other staff - who, unlike Dean, had actually rescued residents on the night - had struggled with feelings of guilt after the blaze.
Shortly after the fire, Dean told a chaplain that "things like this make me lose my faith in God". After being arrested shortly after setting the fires, he told police, by contrast, that "it was Satan telling me to do it".