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Private shop arsonist admits guilt

Neil Andersen (42) of Wedmore Park, Bath, admitted setting fire to the Bath branch of Private and has been told by a judge that he could be made subject of a indefinite hospital order under the Mental Health Act.

Described as a ‘disgruntled customer’, on Wednesday April 18th Mr Andersen dramatically pleaded guilty to arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered after a judge ordered a jury to acquit him of the more serious charge of arson with intent to endanger life.

After Andersen had changed his plea, Bristol Crown Court was told that he’d previously served a three-year jail sentence for affray, had received five years’ imprisonment for making threats to kill and also has convictions for stalking women.

During the trial, jurors were told that Andersen decided to set fire to the shop on the Lower Bristol Road, Bath, because he felt ‘frustrated’ with the owners. Under caution, during his interview he’d told police, “My gripe is with the company that runs the shop, not the worker. I have a gripe about some of the DVDs they sell and produce and I have been receiving hassle from someone. My gripe is that the company used to use a courier in the capital and he got dropped into the shit when he lost some property.”

Having arrested him on suspicion of arson, police questioned Andersen if he’d considered the family living in the flat above the shop and their safety. He replied, “What am I supposed to do? Ring the front door and tell them to get out because I am going to set fire to the place?”

At his trial, jurors were told Andersen walked into the Private shop on the evening of October 21 2011, carrying a green petrol container he’d bought from a DIY store. It’s alleged he told part-time shop assistant Mark Morris, “I’ve got a surprise for you” before throwing the petrol towards him.

Startled and fearing for his life, Mr Morris fled and Andersen continued to pour the accelerant around the store before lighting a match, setting fire to the shop and leaving. Morris has been praised for his quick reactions. He rushed out of the shop as soon as he could to alert the family upstairs and help them to safety. He said, “I didn’t really think about what I was doing until afterwards. At the time it was quite frightening but all I remember thinking was that there was a young baby upstairs.”

Prosecutor Richard Posner informed the five male and seven female jurors that Andersen had not acted impulsively; he had planned the arson attack carefully. Mr Posner told the court, “At about 7pm on the evening of October 21 last year Neil Andersen set fire to a shop in Bath that sells sex toys and pornographic material. He planned to do it. He was frustrated with the company that owns the shop and the person working inside, Mark Morris.”

Mr Posner produced CCTV footage from Homebase showed balding and bespectacled Andersen buying a £5.99 green plastic petrol container. He’s then shown on CCTV at a nearby petrol station approaching from the direction of Homebase, across the road, and filling the can with four litres of unleaded fuel (£5.36) before leaving in the direction of the sex shop.

Andersen sat impassively in the dock, watching the videos. Mr Posner told the jury, “He has bought the container because this defendant had planned to set fire to the shop. He had already decided back home in Bath he was going to do that and so he crossed the road to the Sainsbury’s petrol station. He pays quite calmly for the petrol. This is not someone who presents themselves as someone acting impulsively.”

Prosecutor Mr Posner then showed the jury CCTV footage from inside the Private shop itself, explaining, “You will see a bit of a liberal allocation of petrol on the carpet. Then watch what happens… Before Mr Andersen leaves, he sets fire to the shop. You don’t see much more because the place is on fire. When Mr Andersen went into the shop, Mr Morris remembers him saying, ’I’ve got a surprise for you’ and throwing some petrol at him.”

Speaking at the trial about the evening of the attack, Mark Morris told jurors he’d been shocked at Andersen’s actions as he walk into the shop and start throwing petrol around. “It just happened really fast,” Morris said. “I turned around towards him, he said to me, ’I have a surprise for you’. I remember thinking that he was bringing back some DVDs as we run an exchange. He kept saying, ’This isn’t right’. I said to him there was a family upstairs; that’s the main thing that stuck in my mind. He heard it because it took another three or four seconds for him to pause before he carried on. While it was all happening I remember him saying, ’This isn’t right’. He mumbled something about God, so I thought it was a religious act because he didn’t like what we were doing.”

The fire destroyed the shop, owned by Darker Enterprises Ltd., and did an estimated £25,000 worth of damage but happily the family living in the flat above the store were unharmed. The road past it was closed in both directions for a time, with fire crews dealing with the incident. They were at the scene over the weekend. The store reopened in November after a £20,000 refurbishment.

Recorder Ben Compton QC ordered an additional psychiatric report on Andersen and adjourned sentencing until June, after telling defence barrister James Bennett, “I make it clear to your client that I am considering a restriction order. I think it is almost inevitable.”