Truth or Dare fatal Heysham house fire ‘confession’ was false, Preston Crown Court murder trial jury told
A student accused of murdering a 94-year-old woman in a house fire made “false confessions” that he was a killer to impress his friends, a jury has heard.
Tiernan Darnton, 21, revealed during a game of Truth or Dare that he set a curtain alight at the home of Mary Gregory, whose death was assumed to have been a tragic accident.
Weeks earlier, in the early hours of May 28 2018, firefighters had forced their way into the pensioner’s bungalow in Levens Drive in Heysham and rescued the dementia sufferer, who was treated at the scene by paramedics.
Mrs Gregory died at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary on June 1 from the effects of smoke inhalation.
An inquest later took place in which a coroner recorded a conclusion of accidental death.
The prosecution in Darnton’s trial say the then 17-year-old persuaded his friends not to say anything about the Truth or Dare game, but nearly a year later he went on to make a similar admission to a counsellor, who passed the matter on to the police.
In his closing speech to jurors at Preston Crown Court, John Harrison QC, defending, said the so-called confessions were not true.
“They were false confessions,” he said. “With the Truth or Dare game it appears to have been a misguided attempt to impress friends.
“To the counsellor he said he had killed someone, that was pure fiction. He was troubled by intrusive and dark thoughts which led him to blame himself for what happened to Mrs Gregory.”
The defendant’s stepfather, Chris Gregory, 66, son of the blaze victim, earlier told the court that Darnton – whom he schooled at home – had been suffering from depression for a number of years and was “plagued by intrusive thoughts which were very very disturbing”.
He said his stepson was interested in “all kind of dark things” and would read books about serial killers “but it was all fantasy”.
He told the jury he would have taken Darnton to the police himself if he believed he had hurt his mother in any way.
Darnton, a former student at Kendal College and also Lancaster and Morecambe College, was arrested in May 2019 at the family home in Combermere Road, Heysham.
Examinations of his mobile phone and laptop revealed a number of Google searches made after the fire including “murderer filled with despair”, “I’m a murderer” and “I want to cause evil”.
Before the blaze he had also made a search for “Under 18 murder”.
When giving evidence about the web searches, Darnton said they were related to his interest in horror stories and killers.
Mr Harrison pointed out the initial view of independent fire investigator Jim Stone in August 2018 that the probable cause was a carelessly discarded cigarette was “unbiased” and based upon what he saw at the scene and information received.
Mr Stone, the court has heard, completed a second report in December 2020 in light of the apparent confessions from Darnton.
The Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service investigator said he could not discount the possibility that a naked flame was the ignition source in the front bedroom but maintained it was more likely to have been a cigarette.
Mr Harrison said: “He has not shifted that conclusion and has stuck to his guns.
“We say the fire was not started by a naked flame because if it had been there would be a completely different scene. It started as a smouldering fire in the region between the bed and the chair; it did not happen near the curtains.”
He suggested that Mrs Gregory probably inadvertently caused the fire by dropping a lit cigarette on clothing laid out or piled up on the bed.
A fire examination expert for the prosecution has said the blaze was started by naked flame ignition near the front bedroom window of the property.
Mr Harrison told the jury: “If you prefer Mr Stone’s evidence, it has a profound impact on the prosecution case because it means their case is inherently unlikely.”
He added that the Crown’s case was that Darnton had unplugged a phone at the address before the fire and taken down a smoke alarm from the ceiling to hamper any escape, but he said another smoke detector at the address was successfully activated.
“Why not take that alarm down?” asked Mr Harrison.
Darnton denies murder, and the trial continues.