Cry for attention ended in blaze death

Irene Herring
Irene Herring

A TEENAGE care home assistant accused of starting a fatal fire revealed that the elderly resident killed in the blaze had died two days before the information was made public, a court heard.

Lewes Crown Court heard how Rebecca Reasbeck, then 17, of London Road, St Leonards, started a fire in resident Irene Herring’s third floor bedroom at Ancaster Court in Hastings Road, Bexhill, on the morning of February 2, 2009.

She wanted to look as though she had saved the 85-year-old’s life, it was claimed.

However her cry for attention went tragically wrong when the blaze burned out of control, leaving Mrs Herring trapped in a smoke-filled room as the rest of the building was evacuated.

The next day, the laundry girl, known as Becky, told her father’s partner about the investigation – which was then being treated as murder – at a time when most people believed the fire had been an accident, the jury heard.

Emma Chamberlain, who was living with Reasbeck and her father, Darren Reasbeck, at their home in St Leonards, told a Lewes Crown Court jury: “I came home from work at 2.30pm on the Monday.

“Becky told me there was going to be something on the news about an old lady. She said the old lady was murdered.”

Mrs Herring, a mother-of-five who suffered from dementia, was rescued from her room by firefighters and taken to hospital, but later died with husband David, 87, at her bedside.

A post-mortem examination found she had died of pneumonia caused by smoke inhalation.

An investigation of Mrs Herring’s room found the fire had been started deliberately in two different places and then the door had been closed.

Sussex Police treated the incident first of all as an arson, then as murder when Mrs Herring died.

However, officers leading the inquiry kept those details under wraps until all her relatives had been informed on the Wednesday afternoon, so that only those closest to the investigation knew it was a suspicious death.

On cross-examination, Miss Chamberlain, who has since split from Reasbeck’s father, insisted she had understood clearly what the teenager had said, despite being profoundly deaf and rarely communicating with Reasbeck because they did not get on.

She denied having got the day of their alleged conversation wrong.

The trial heard that Reasbeck, who denies manslaughter, told colleagues she smelled smoke when she was in the linen room on the ground floor of the home on the morning of February 1 and went upstairs to investigate.

However, three other members of staff who were in the building all told the jury they could not smell smoke until they opened the fire door to the corridor outside Mrs Herring’s room.

Reasbeck was first to go to the room and tried to open the door, from which smoke was by now billowing through the gaps.

But she was told to leave it shut by staff nurses, who were following instructions never to open the door to a blaze, just as they had been instructed on a fire safety course just a week earlier.

All the other residents were safely evacuated and the fire was contained to the room. but the smoke was enough to kill Mrs Herring.

Reasbeck broke down in tears in the dock as the jury was told how she thought she had overheard two of her former colleagues discussing her when they got the same train to court on Tuesday.

Simon Russell-Flint QC asked registered nurse Tess Blomfeldt if she remembered saying to colleague Maria Chatto: “She was an evil b**** and deserves everything she gets.”

Mr Russell-Flint said the two nurses had not realised Reasbeck was sitting right behind them as they talked about her and about the case.

He asked if she remembered Mrs Chatto saying she would tell the jury she had only had one conversation with Reasbeck on the morning of the fire when in fact she knew they had spoken twice.

Ms Blomfeldt told the jury she knew Reasbeck was on the train because she had seen her at a station in St Leonards and denied discussing anything about the case.

The case continues.