A student who admitted killing his 94-year-old step-grandmother in a house fire during a game of truth and dare has been convicted of her murder.
Three years after an inquest ruled Mary Gregory was the victim of an accidental blaze at her home in Lancashire, Tiernan Darnton, 21, was found guilty of killing the pensioner using a lighter to set a curtain on fire.
Ms Gregory was discovered under a table in the conservatory of her smoke-logged bungalow in Heysham in the early hours of 28 May 2018 and died four days later in hospital.
An investigation by Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service initially ruled out any third party involvement, having concluded the most probable cause was a dropped or carelessly discarded cigarette. A coroner later recorded a verdict of an accidental death.
However, police reopened the case in May 2019 following comments made by Darnton during a counselling session in which he said he killed Ms Gregory - his stepfather's mother.
He made a similar confession several weeks after Ms Gregory's death during a game of truth or dare with two friends in which he revealed his “darkest secret”.
He told the pair: “I have a secret I haven't told anyone. I may have killed someone.”
Darnton's friends did not believe him and he persuaded them to keep quiet, but he told a counsellor in May 2019 about a friend “who could send me to prison cos of what he knows”.
The female counsellor ended the session by saying to him “I'm not really clear what you're saying but I think you're trying to tell me you've killed someone”, to which Darnton was said to have mouthed “Yes”.
A week later he told the counsellor and his stepfather, Chris Gregory, 66, that he had started the fire and the information was then handed to the police by the counsellor.
Preston Crown Court heard that Darnton started the fire because he did not want Ms Gregory to suffer any longer from dementia.
Darnton was arrested at his family home in Combermere Road, Heysham, in May 2019.
Examination of his mobile phone and laptop found internet searches made after the fire including “I'm a murderer”, “I'm a monster and I'm going to hell”, “I want to cause evil” and “Urge to kill again”.
A month before the fatal blaze - when Darnton was 17 - he also searched “Under 18 murder”.
Giving evidence at his trial, Darnton said the case was “all a big misunderstanding” and his confessions were false.
Darnton said his comments to the counsellor that he had killed somebody were “attention-seeking” but denied saying he had set his step-grandmother's house alight.
He claimed his Google searches were related to his interest in killers and true crime, and said he did not even understand at the time the true definition in law of murder.
An investigator from Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service ruled in August 2018 that the probable cause of the fire at Mrs Gregory's home was a cigarette and told the jury his opinion was unchanged.
However, a fire examination expert for the prosecution said the chances of that were “extremely remote” and he believed the blaze was most likely started by naked flame ignition near the front bedroom window of the property.
The investigation also found that the spare key was missing from the outside key box, one of two smoke alarms at the property had been disabled and the home telephone was disconnected, meaning Ms Gregory couldn’t call for help.
A packet of Tunnock's teacakes and a can of Coca-Cola, bought by Darnton from a nearby service station less than two hours before the fire, were discovered at the scene.
Evidence shown to the jury also included drawings found at Darnton's home address, outlining the floor plan of Mrs Gregory's bungalow. They contained labels including “good hiding place” and “quick exit”, as well as references to needing a “good alibi”.
Mr Gregory, giving evidence for the defence, said Darnton had been suffering from depression for a number of years and was “plagued by intrusive thoughts which were very, very disturbing”.
He told the jury he would have taken Darnton to the police himself if he believed he had hurt his mother in any way.
The defendant closed his eyes briefly after the jury foreman returned the unanimous verdict and his stepfather rushed out of the courtroom as other members of the family, who were sitting apart from Mr Gregory, broke down down in tears.
Following the verdict, Detective Chief Inspector Zoe Russo from Lancashire Police Force Major Incident Team, said: “Darnton regularly visited Mrs Gregory’s home after her son took him under his wing at a young age.
“Darnton would spend time at Mrs Gregory’s bungalow and not only took advantage of Mrs Gregory’s kind nature, he also used his access to her home to meticulously plan his murderous act.
“From his initial arrest and throughout Darnton has protested his innocence and put forward a concoction of lies in an effort to evade justice. And so, I want to express my gratitude to the prosecution team who have worked tirelessly to disprove those lies over many months and provided the catalogue of evidence which has ultimately proven his guilt.
“Our thoughts remain very much with Ms Gregory’s family and friends. We hope this verdict provides them with some form of closure and they can now start moving forward with their lives.”
Sentencing will take place on Friday.
Additional reporting by PA
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in