Matthew Taylor in London April 12, 2012
Jailed ... Gordon Thompson. Photo: AFP
Croydon blaze draws longest term of 2011 riot. Defendant says he did not intend such huge damage.
A man responsible for the most infamous incident of the rioting in England last summer has been jailed for 11½ years.
Gordon Thompson, 34, admitted starting a fire in the Reeves furniture store in Croydon that destroyed the building and put residents and firefighters' lives "in very real danger". The blaze cost £3 million, and spread to properties opposite, forcing residents to flee for their lives.
Thompson had admitted starting the fire on the third day of his trial at the Old Bailey central criminal court in London, and was given a total sentence of 11½ years, the most severe handed down in the riots.
In court, Trevor Reeves, the store's finance director and son of the owner, described the loss caused by the fire as a bereavement. "I just can't understand what I have done to make someone do this to me ... I wonder with despair what my father and grandfather would make of the situation."
The court heard that Thompson, a painter and decorator from Croydon, broke into the store on the third night of rioting and grabbed a laptop. He then asked another rioter for a lighter, and set fire to a sofa just inside the window. Moments later, the court heard, he boasted to a passerby: "It was me. I did that. I burned Reeves Corner."
Thompson admitted arson and was given 11½ years, and also admitted three charges of burglary for which he got concurrent lesser terms. Judge Peter Thornton told him: "This day was a bad day for Croydon and the people of Croydon. Perhaps the most shocking event was that the House of Reeves was set alight and burned to the ground, putting lives at risk." He added: "This is, was, a landmark store, a furniture store of the Reeves family business which had stood on the site for over 140 years, proudly giving its name to its location, Reeves Corner. You were about to bring all that to an end. This was a deliberate, wilful act of shocking, dangerous vandalism." The judge said the Reeves family's loss was priceless. "The trauma they have suffered is inestimable."
The fire in the store and nearby buildings was seen on television around the world. A photograph of a woman, Monika Konczyk, jumping from a first floor flat to escape the flames became a defining images of the disturbance. The court heard that residents were left traumatised, with some lucky to be alive after escaping with their young children.
Thompson has 20 previous convictions, including one for violent robbery. In mitigation, he said that he had joined the riots because he was depressed about his divorce, and he had not intended to cause such huge damage by setting fire to one sofa cushion. Adam Davis QC, for Thompson, said: "He wanted me on his behalf to apologise to all those involved, and in particular the Reeves family for what happened as a result of his reckless actions."
Outside court, Maurice Reeves, 81, said that he accepted the apology: "He's done so much harm for everybody, and we have to fight back; and that's what we are doing. That's the typical Reeves family."
His son, 56, said: "My father built that store up, that store was his baby. I lived there as a child, played there as a child, I lived there as an adult, I worked there most of my adult life; when you lose something like that it's like a bereavement."
Guardian News & Media