AN ARSONIST who went on the run for a decade after setting ablaze a thriving restaurant has been been sent to jail.
Richard Bowman, 38, set fire to The Granary in Titchfield in January 2008 after he was paid £2,500 by an unknown source to do the job just weeks after the eatery appeared on Gordon Ramsay’s television show Kitchen Nightmares.
While no one was injured in the inferno, only ‘good fortune’ prevented casualties after one of the owners abandoned plans to stay at the restaurant due to her child being taken ill.
Bowman, of no fixed address, admitted arson reckless as to whether life was endangered at Portsmouth Crown Court after he smashed into the restaurant and torched it – ruining the lives of owners Nigel and Sally-Ann Nieddu along the way.
As the devastated couple faced up to losing their much loved restaurant and seeing their business empire crumble after being falsely accused of being behind the fire, Bowman fled the country to live in Marbella, Spain.
A forensic investigation of the blaze revealed Bowman’s DNA resulting in a warrant being issued for his arrest.
But he continued to live a free life until the authorities caught up with him in April this year, prosecutor Matthew Pardoe told the court.
‘Police went to his address and work and spoke to his girlfriend after the fire but he had disappeared,’ Mr Pardoe said.
‘He left the country in February 2008 after selling his Audi TT car and went to Spain.
‘He was brought back to the UK this year and pleaded guilty to the offence.’
The Granary was left decimated by the blaze and with the insurance company refusing to pay out the £800,000 cost to repair the building it was left to the Nieddu owners to foot the bill.
‘With the couple being falsely accused of an insurance job it stopped them receiving any remuneration they were due,’ Mr Pardoe said.
The suffering inflicted on the family was laid bare by Mrs Nieddu’s victim impact statement read out in court.
She said. ‘I feel very lucky to be alive as I was due to stay there but decided not to after my son was poorly. If we had of stayed there then we would probably be dead.’
Mrs Nieddu spoke of how they built up The Granary in two years with it being the hub of their lives and a restaurant they had fallen in ‘love’ with before it turned to a nightmare.
‘Suddenly we were trying to fend off the bank, insurance company, local authorities and even travellers who had started using the premises,’ she said.
‘Our 26 year marriage broke down after we became different people.’
Daniel Reilly, defending, said Bowman was remorseful and was now a transformed man who has been accepted to work as a listener for the Samaritans while in jail. A prison officer, where Bowman has been remanded, described him as ‘polite, courteous with excellent behaviour who coaches other peers how to improve’.
A letter from the defendant read out, said: ‘I would like to apologise for the hurt I caused all those years ago.’
Judge Robert Hill told Bowman his actions were ‘reckless’ with it ‘only good fortune’ preventing a worse fate, before he handed down a five year prison term.
At a previous hearing Mr Reilly said Bowman ‘lived perhaps an ordinary existence, certainly without coming to the attention of the authorities in Spain in those 10 years or so’.
A the same hearing in July a judge was told Bowman has a previous conviction for manslaughter in 1998. The News reported that Bowman, then aged 18, had been handed a 21-month manslaughter sentence for the 1997 killing of Geoff Bunce.
Bowman had punched Mr Bunce, 34, twice at Gosport's Privett Park in June 1997.