Claims newsagency owner started fire for $700k insurance
THE owner of a Walkerston newsagency is accused of setting fire to her business because she was in debt and wanted to cash in a $700,000 insurance policy, a court heard.
Crown prosecutor Steph Gallagher told a jury the case against the Devereux Creek woman was "circumstantial".
Narelle Ann Cooper has pleaded not guilty in Mackay District Court to attempted arson on July 30, 2018.
"There won't be a single witness that I'll call in this trial who'll say that they saw her do it," Ms Gallagher said.
Firefighters were called to the Creek St business about 5.49pm after a nearby butcher saw flames inside the building.
The court heard the blaze was quickly doused but "there was a large amount of damage".
"Once the fire was out, firefighters began to assess what had happened," Ms Gallagher said.
"And the ultimate opinion you'll hear from the experts is that there was some human involvement in the cause of that fire."
Ms Gallagher said Mrs Cooper told police she closed the doors about 5.30pm that day and left the building about 5.40pm.
The court heard "only nine minutes" later the fire was spotted.
The crown case, Ms Gallagher said, was that Mrs Cooper set something on fire within the business she owned with her husband Bradley Cooper and that she did it on purpose.
Ms Gallagher has alleged her motive was financial issues - there were two loans from Westpac for the couple's home and the business and finance on the shop fit-out.
The court heard Mrs Cooper had been provided a payment plan from the ATO and by March 2018 the couple had received a claim and a statement to recover property.
"Against that financial background the following occurs," Ms Gallagher said.
The court heard about 10.30am the morning of the fire Mrs Cooper received an email from her insurer about the policy renewal due in one month.
"The policy was attached to that email, it was to the effect of $700,000," Ms Gallagher said.
During Ms Gallagher's opening speech, the jury heard the building was secure when firefighters arrived and they had to break doors to gain access.
The court heard the fire was believed to have started from the bottom of a metal pen rack at the front of the store and small butane gas canisters were located at various locations around the store.
"This is another piece of the puzzle," Ms Gallagher said.
"You'll hear from the store employees that the butane gas canisters were sold at the newsagency and that they were usually kept on this back wall.
"But when the scene was being assessed by the fire experts they noticed unusually that the gas canisters were in various locations around the newsagency."
Up to 27 witnesses including police, firefighters and ATO representatives may be called in the trial against Mrs Cooper.
A debt collector told Mackay District Court he had served Ms Cooper with papers three times including a claim and statement of claim from Westpac bank in relation to the house she owned with her husband.
The court heard Ms Cooper and her husband had two loans with Westpac totalling about $632,000 and by January 2018 there had been a default against each loan and notices were sent out which they failed to comply with.
As of July 2018 the legal proceedings for the claim were still on going.
Barrister Tony Collins, acting for Mrs Cooper, questioned a representative for Westpac who told the court the Coopers made ongoing payments and had entered into a formal arrangement this year.
Accountant Brent Trannore, of Next Accounting, who looked after Mrs Cooper's books said he had organised a payment plan with the ATO for money owed, later said it was not uncommon.
Mr Collins questioned Mr Trannore, who had been the couple's accountant for about 11 years, on whether the newsagency had been trading insolvent, which means it could not afford to pay its debts.
"I didn't feel at that stage that it was," Mr Trannore said.
"Narelle tried a lot of things to improve the financial position and she was still trying things at my last contact with her."
"She was fighting?" Mr Collins asked.
"Oh yeah she was fighting, too right," Mr Trannore said.
Six witnesses have given evidence so far. The trial continues tomorrow under Chief Judge Brian Devereaux.