The incredible story of how an insurance company thinks a man burned his house down from 400km away

It involves two computers, at least one printer, some string, a battery and a box of matches

Adam Withnall
Monday 05 September 2016 15:19

Stories of insurance companies refusing to pay out have existed for about as long as insurance companies themselves.

Yet few can be as surprising, elaborate, or involve as many bizarre details as the case of British expat Christopher Robinson and the fire that destroyed his $1.6 million mansion in New Zealand.

Mr Robinson, in his late sixties, moved to a remote part of North Island near Kerikeri with his wife and two children in 2005.

On 9 September 2011, the couple drove 400km from home to visit Hamilton. That night, shortly before midnight, neighbours in Kerikeri phoned the emergency services to say the Robinson home was going up in flames. It, along with Mr Robinson’s E-class Mercedes, was reduced to cinders.

Yet almost five years later to the day, the family has not received a penny from insurance giant IAG.

That’s because, according to a lengthy account of the proceedings in New Zealand’s Stuff magazine, IAG’s fire investigators believe Mr Robinson set the fire himself - from remote.

Sifting through the remains of the home, they found an Acer desktop computer which, forensic tests showed, had been remotely accessed on the night of the fire.

They also found the burned-out remains of two printers, which were connected to the Acer, and tell-tale burn marks to suggest the fire had involved the use of an accelerant such as petrol.

The investigators’ theory, according to Stuff, is that Mr Robinson used his Macbook Pro in Hamilton to log in to the Acer remotely.

The Acer then (according to the theory) sent a command to the printer, which pulled through a piece of paper, which pulled a piece of string, which was attached to a switch. The switch would then turn on a 12V battery, heating an element that would light a match, setting alight a flammable liquid and, finally, bringing down the whole house.

The theory may sound farfetched, but the evidence of remote access on the Acer in particular was enough for police to take it seriously, and Mr Robinson was charged with arson and making a fraudulent insurance claim.

According to a New Zealand Herald report from earlier this year, the insurance company’s theory collapsed when prosecutors could not prove that a print command had actually been sent, despite extensive forensic work on all the computer equipment in question.

Yet IAG still insists the fire was started deliberately, and refuses to pay out. A civil case on that front is still pending.

For his part, Mr Robinson told Stuff he believes the fire was started by intruders.

The idea he would use an elaborate Rube-Goldberg (or Heath-Robinson) machine was nonsense, he said. “Why would you use such a system rather than just plugging a cheap time-switch into the wall-socket?”

The plot thickened further, if possible, when Mr Robinson emailed IAG executives and their lawyers threatening to discredit the company online if they didn’t pay up.

In May this year, he was found guilty of blackmail, the Herald reports, and sentenced in June to nine months’ home detention.

With everything invested in the Kerikeri mansion, Mr Robinson is now formally bankrupt - a status which is making it difficult for him to chase IAG for his pay-out.

IAG, meanwhile, say the failure of the criminal case against Mr Robinson changes nothing about their view that is was a deliberate fire.

The Independent has contacted IAG for comment. Meanwhile, the bizarre saga continues.

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