Jail sentence for drunk arsonist who set fire to Whitby Costa Coffee shop

Jeffrey Harrison.
Jeffrey Harrison.

An arsonist who torched the Costa Coffee shop in Whitby - causing nearly £50,000 of damage - has been jailed for nearly three years.

Jeffrey Harrison, 48, started the blaze deliberately by setting fire to a pile of rubbish and a wheelie bin next to the coffee house in Baxtergate.

Harrison - said to be drunk on whisky and beer - struck in the early hours of the morning when people were asleep in flats above the shop, York Crown Court heard.

Prosecutor Rob Galley said the blaze caused £48,951 of damage to the coffee house but police and firefighters were called out before the fire could spread to the flats above.

He said there was a couple asleep in a flat who would have been in serious danger had the fire spread, but a passer-by woke them by ringing their doorbell and fire crews duly arrived to put the flames out.

The blaze, which started just after midnight on April 24, caused “extensive” fire and smoke damage to the front and interior of the coffee shop. Some of the glass panels had been “melted” and one of them had imploded.

The popular town-centre shop was forced to close for almost three weeks for repairs to be carried out.

Harrison, from Hinderwell, was arrested days after the incident and charged with arson, intending to damage or destroy the building and being reckless as to whether the life would be endangered.

He admitted the charge at a previous hearing in June, when sentence was adjourned for psychiatric reports due to a previous conviction for arson. He appeared for sentence via video link on Monday.

Mr Galley told the court: “When police arrived at the scene in Baxtergate, there were flames in the doorway (of Costa Coffee). (Firefighters) extinguished them relatively quickly.”

He said the sleeping couple’s escape route could have been blocked if the fire had spread beyond the ground floor. In the event, they got out of the flat just before firefighters arrived and were ushered to the safety of the Whitby Harbour swing bridge, thanks to the “vigilant” but unidentified passer-by who raised the alarm.

Mr Galley said Harrison had used a cigarette lighter, striking it “several times” to set fire to a pile of bin bags next to the coffee house. He then got in a taxi and made his way home.

“The taxi driver said he was acting a bit weird; he wasn’t sure if he was drunk or not,” added Mr Galley.

Shortly after the blaze, police were called out to a report of a “drunken nuisance” at an address in the Whitby area. The “nuisance” turned out to be Harrison, wearing the same blue raincoat which had been captured by CCTV at the time of the blaze.

Police identified Harrison through the CCTV footage and turned up at his home in Runswick Lane, Hinderwell, where they found the incriminating blue raincoat and two cigarette lighters.

In December last year, Harrison - who has a previous conviction for damaging property - received a 16-month jail sentence for attempted arson and being reckless as to whether life would be endangered following an incident in which he shoved lit paper through a neighbour’s letterbox following an argument. On that occasion, the victim managed to put the fire out himself.

However, Harrison was released from jail in March – just a month before the attack on Costa Coffee. Harrison’s solicitor advocate Stephen Munro said his client had drunk a bottle of whisky and some beer before the incident at the coffee shop.

“It was something he did in drink and he didn’t think it through,” added Mr Munro.

But he knew he would be “creating a risk to other people” and was “very remorseful”.

Mr Munro said psychiatrists had pinpointed Harrison’s alcohol abuse as the “crux of his problems”, rather than any deep psychological issues which would make him a danger to the public.

He said Harrison was getting help for his booze problem and had sought counselling.

Jailing Harrison for 32 months, judge Sean Morris told him: “It’s quite clear to me that, in drink, you are capable of doing anything. A custodial sentence is inevitable – fires kill.”