THE DEVASTATED family of a great-grandmother who died after her bed was set alight in a Fylde coast care home were today left with one terrible question – who killed her?
Edith Stuart, 96, suffered 50 per cent burns after someone held a flame to her bedding at Cleveleys Park Care Home.
Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, West Lancashire deputy coroner Simon Jones said: “I share the regrets that police have been unable to identify anyone responsible for this dreadful act which could have resulted in them being brought before criminal court.
“I offer my condolences to the family. They are left with the one question – who is responsible for Mrs Stuart’s death?”
Police launched a murder probe following the fire in October 2010 and two employees were initially held on suspicion of murder.
But in March this year the Crown Prosecution Service ruled there was insufficient evidence to take the case any further.
Mrs Stuart, a retired textile weaver, had been living at the care home in Stockdove Way for four years. Her husband, William Stuart, died in 1983.
The possibility of Mrs Stuart setting fire to the bed herself was ruled out by police.
At the inquest, held at Fleetwood Magistrates’ Court, watch manager Richard Percival of Lancashire Fire and Rescue said it was ‘highly likely’ the fire was deliberate.
He said: “It would have taken three seconds for the bedding to set alight, which is quite a long time if you think about it, it couldn’t have happened if a flame had touched the material accidentally.”
A cigarette lighter was found in the pensioner’s room but it is not known if it was used.
Det Chief Insp Neil Esseen, senior investigating officer, told the inquest the two members of staff on duty that night – Sophie Nolan and Charlene Clough – had been thoroughly interviewed.
He said: “Throughout the interview both Charlene and Sophie spoke quite openly about their movements during the day up until putting Mrs Stuart to bed and their movements after the fire brigade arrived but there are disagreements in the intervening times.”
At the inquest Miss Nolan and Ms Clough said they prepared tea for the residents, given them medication and then put them to bed.
Miss Nolan said she then went to the laundry room and was there for five minutes until she heard the fire alarm go off just before 6pm.
She said: “I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I went into the hallway and saw Charlene next to the stairs. I checked to see if anything was on fire in the kitchen and when I returned to the hall I saw thick black smoke coming under Edith’s door.”
Ms Clough told the coroner she had put Mrs Stuart to bed and then both her and Miss Nolan had a tea break and a cigarette outside.
She then went upstairs and heard the fire alarm on the second floor hallway.
She added: “I went to the alarm box, I remember trying to put in the code but it wouldn’t go off so I said there might be a fire in the kitchen and went to look at that.
“On the way I noticed smoke coming from Edith’s room and the door was black, I felt shocked, I was shouting at the residents to get out.
“I tried to get Edith but the room was pitch black with smoke, I couldn’t see her, I could hear something but couldn’t get to her because of the flames.”
Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, deputy coroner Jones added: “It’s hard to conceive a more dreadful act than for someone to deliberately set fire to a bed in which an elderly, frail, and relatively immobile lady, is lying in the knowledge that the lady has limited possibility of escaping the fire once it has started and in doing so to bring about her death.”
Following the inquest a Lancashire Police spokesman said: “This remains an ongoing murder inquiry and Lancashire Police has a policy of never closing cases.
“We would appeal for anyone who has any information to come forward so that we can give Mrs Stuart’s family the answers they desperately need.”