Two men were found guilty of burning down Chilford Hall barn in Linton but cleared of a more serious charge.
Mark Hall, 28, and Thomas Richardson, 27, both from Pipers Close, Haverhill, were found guilty of burning down the 400 year old barn, causing £4.5 million of damage after the June 13 fire.
Hall was convicted of arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered at Cambridge Crown Court on Friday (December 21). Richardson had admitted this at the start of the two week trial.
Both were cleared of the more serious charge of arson with intent to endanger life.
The pair will be sentenced on February 8, and will remain in custody until then.
Summarising the evidence on Thursday (December 20), Judge Hawkesworth explained that Richardson had worked at Chilford Hall but been fired in 2009 after drinking on the job and stealing vodka.
Following his dismissal, he repeatedly threatened to burn the hall down and challenged its director and general manager Glen Mejias to a fight. Richardson was cautioned in 2009 for such threats but said they were hollow and to get attention.
Richardson’s neighbour Hall, who has autism, was adopted aged seven and moved to Haverhill aged 17.
He did not work and began drinking heavily after his adopted father died in April.
He said that he felt indebted to Richardson after breaking his laptop by spilling cider on it.
Both had been drinking heavily before the barn was razed on June 13, with Richardson taking a £100 loan from payday loan firm Wonga as he only had £15 in his bank account and wanted to get drunk that night.
Police were alerted after a woman called claiming the pair were about the burn down the building and were in a black Honda.
Police saw the car at Chilford Hall, and Hall was later arrested outside Pipers Close with Richardson arrested inside, wearing just his underwear. Sally Ketterdige, who he lived with, said: “Have they done it? Have they burnt down Chilford Hall?”, when officers arrived.
Hall said Richardson started the fire by lighting alcohol on the floor of the barn, though Richardson said Hall began the blaze by setting alight paper napkins in a bin.
Richardson said of when they got back to Haverhill: “Tom was proud.
“He was saying ‘I’ve done it baby, I’ve done it baby, I’ve burnt that building down and I’ve wanted to do it for three years’.
“I was wondering why he was laughing and joking because somebody could have been killed.”
Hall slipped and cut his hand while were both smashing bottles after breaking into the venue.
“I was in a lot of agony and my hand was really sore,” he said.
“I tried to get up and said ‘Whoa whoa Tom you’re going too far.
“It was a scary situation to be in.
“I was so scared as I didn’t know what to do – Tom was laughing and I was crying.
“I should have said no but I went along with it anyway.
“I was scared for my life. “I’ve never been so scared before, I was petrified.
“It was obvious that the fire was dangerous and it was obvious that it could kill.”
Hall claims he got trapped trying to escape the building through a fire door while Richardson was already outside.
Richardson said Hall said when they returned: “We are hardcore, we burnt it down.”
Richardson had said to police: “I admit to being reckless and being reckless as to whether life was in danger.
“I’m guilty to burning it and guilty to criminal damage but from my account I have nothing to do with arson.
“I didn’t encourage Mark to start the fire and had said I didn’t want to burn Chilford Hall, it was just to get attention from people when I spoke about it.”
Inside the Honda police found bin bags containing several bottles of empty spirits and white tissues soaked in alcohol.
Investigations by fire officers and crime scene investigators revealed the fire had been started deliberately.
DC Tracey Griffin said: “This was a revenge attack by an ex-employee and his accomplice which caused a considerable amount of damage, not to mention the heartache this caused couples who were due to get married at the wedding venue.
“The fire not only put officers and fire officers in danger but has also had a detrimental effect on the local community and local businesses.
“Thankfully no-one was hurt and I hope this result sends out a strong message to others of the serious consequences of arson.”
Martin Boome, arson manager at Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service, said: “The thoughtless actions of these individuals led to a serious fire in a popular Cambridgeshire venue.
“This was devastating not only for the owners but also had implications for the whole community.
“When tackling the fire, the risk to the lives of firefighters involved was very real and very serious, amplified by gas cylinders exploding while we were on site.
“The amount of resources needed to tackle this fire were significant and costly, not only for Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service but also for our counterparts in Suffolk and Essex.
“We worked closely with police to recover evidence and file reports and we are pleased the outcome of this has led to a successful criminal conviction.”
Owner of Childford Hall Fiona Alper said: “The terrible fire in June not only deeply affected us but also our loyal staff, clients, suppliers, friends and the local community.
“I would like to thank them all for being so incredibly supportive in the wake of this devastating tragedy.
“We are lucky to have so many fond memories of more than 30 years worth of incredible events hosted at Chilford Hall, and we are looking forward to hosting many more in the years to come.
“We are already taking bookings for our brand new, elegant and top of the range marquee which will be erected in February so that we can continue our business while we plan what to do with our site.
“The vineyard and winery have not been affected and the popular tours recommence in March as scheduled.
“We have lost unique, historic buildings and an irreplaceable art collection but we have every intention of rising from the ashes.”
For all the latest news see today’s (Thursday, December 27) Echo.