A heated neighbours’ dispute became incendiary when a petrol bomb was terrifyingly hurled at a couple’s home in the dead of night as they were asleep upstairs.
Fortunately they were woken by the noise outside and, as the fire brigade was called, they managed to get out of the burning house and to save one of their cars from the flames.
The petrol bomb attacker was their next-door neighbour James Banning, who had a long-standing grudge over a complaint made against him to the local council, a jury heard.
Banning (36) of Hall Close, Stoneleigh, had pleaded not guilty at Warwick Crown Court to charges of conspiracy to commit arson and arson with intent to endanger life.
After more than six hours, the jury acquitted him of both of those charges – but found him guilty of an alternative offence of arson being reckless whether life was endangered.
Remanding Banning, who was also convicted of harassment, in custody for a pre-sentence report, Judge Andrew Lockhart QC said he was facing ‘a very significant custodial sentence indeed.’
But a second man in the dock, Richard Eykyn (46) of Milton Avenue, Warwick, walked free after the jury cleared him of the conspiracy charge, which he had also denied.
Prosecutor Graeme Simpson had said: “This is all about a history between next-door neighbours which escalated and spiralled out of control, but which by good fortune did not have disastrous consequences.”
He explained that in April last year Banning's neighbours reported him to Warwick District Council for noise nuisance.
“He found out about it and commenced a campaign against her, but it really started on the 22nd of August when his neighbour received a number of threatening calls on her mobile phone.”
In one, Banning threatened: “What sort of vegetable would you like to be, because you’re going to be a vegetable? I’m going to hunt you down and kill you, you b***h.” And in another, he told her: “I’m going to rip your face off.”
She then heard a noise from outside, and when she went to investigate, she found the windows of her car, her partner's car and the kitchen window had been smashed.
On September 3, after she had reported him to the police and he was on bail, Banning went past her house and shouted at her: “I’m going to kill you, b***h.”
She then became aware of graffiti on a nearby bridge, calling her a 'grass’ and posters of her which had been put up around the village.
“But the campaign took a far more sinister turn on the night of the 30th of September,” said Mr Simpson.
The couple had gone to bed, leaving their cars parked next to each-other at the front on the house, and were woken by a noise in the early hours of the morning.
They then realised to their horror that the front of their Warwick District Council house was on fire, so they got out through a side door and called the police and fire brigade.
They managed to move the BMW away from the house, but their Mercedes was already ablaze.
Mr Simpson said that when she checked their CCTV system, which survived the blaze, ‘it chilled her to the bone.’
It showed Banning approaching the house from the nearby village hall car park, carrying something that was burning and dripping burning liquid onto the road.
In his other hand he had a hammer with which he tried to smash the windows of a car, without success.
“He then, with some force, threw the burning object directly at the front of the house and then fled back to the car park and left in a car,” said Mr Simpson.
It was suggested his original plan had been to set fire to the car, but that he had then switched his attention to the house when he had failed to break the car window.
Banning denied making any of the threatening calls made on a pay-as-you go ‘burner phone’, but it was established that he had made the top-up payments for it.
He also denied carrying out the arson attack, claiming the couple were trying to pin it on him because of their feud.
But the couple told the jury that although they could not see the face of the petrol bomber, they recognised him from having been neighbours for so many years, and she recognised the distinctive scarf he was wearing.
The court heard Eykyn had been with Banning that night, but he denied being involved in a plan to petrol-bomb the car.
Following the jury’s verdicts, Banning’s barrister Rashad Mohammed acknowledged: “He recognises a prison sentence awaits him of some length.”
But Judge Lockhart said he wanted a report to be prepared on Banning to consider the danger he poses in the future.
He explained: “This is a man who embarked on a campaign of abuse, and has then acquired a fire bomb and thrown it at someone’s home in the dead of night. This is a fire bomb attack on someone out of vindictiveness.”
And the judge told Banning: “I will sentence you to a very significant custodial sentence indeed. You should prepare yourself for that.”