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Cornwall family fire deaths 'will remain a mystery' says coroner

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 21, 2012

  • Police at the bungalow where ten-year-old Harry Philpotts, right, was bludgeoned with a sledgehammer before the bungalow was set on fire

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The reasons behind a fire in Cornwall which killed three members of the same family will never be known, a coroner conceded yesterday.

Ten-year-old Ben Philpotts died with his parents Patricia and Harold Philpotts following the blaze in Trevarrian, Newquay, in the early hours of January 18, 2010. The schoolboy had been bludgeoned with a sledgehammer, which rendered him unconscious as a fire took hold in Mrs Philpotts' bedroom on the first floor of the dormer bungalow the pair shared with the boy's grandmother and cousin.

Mr Philpotts, who had a history of mental illness and chaotic behaviour, was estranged from his wife. He had been staying at the home over the weekend and was thought to have been reluctant to return to his home in Redruth. Mr Philpotts, 47, was the prime suspect for causing the blaze, believed to have included an accelerant, but he died in hospital eight days later having been arrested by police in a field 100 yards from the fire he sought to flee. Ben was pronounced dead at Royal Cornwall Hospital shortly after the fire took hold, while his mother died at the scene.

Cornwall Coroner Dr Emma Carlyon recorded open verdicts in the deaths of Mr and Mrs Philpotts, and unlawful killing in the case of their son, who had suffered severe facial injuries but was still breathing when smoke filled his bedroom. A sledgehammer weighing 7.4kg was found in the boy's bed.

Dr Carlyon told the hearing in Truro the circumstantial evidence pointed to Mr Philpotts dousing his wife's bedroom in accelerant, after petrol cans were found in the room and a lighter later recovered from his trouser pocket. But she said there was "no evidence to how the fire was started", and acknowledged testimony given in court from mental health professionals which said the deaths could not have been avoided.

Mr Philpotts had a history of mental illness, having previously been sectioned. He was convinced medics and members of his family were plotting to kill him. He also travelled to various hospitals to get repeatedly tested for HIV following an affair several years earlier. He refused to believe his test was negative following the onset of mental health problems two-and-a-half years earlier, the inquest heard.

But experts said that despite Mr Philpotts' increasingly chaotic behaviour, there was no reason to section him or believe he would pose a risk to his family. His social worker, David Alexander, said the behaviour was not "a precursor to tragedy".

Dr Anand Irpati, from the Cornwall mental health team, agreed that Mr Philpotts' mental health did not present significant risk to the others.

He said: "At the time of the deaths, there were no concerns for the safety of his wife and son."

Dr Tim Baker, Mr Philpotts' GP at the time of his death, said he was not aware of any concern for Ben and his mother. He said there was "nothing to suggest" the deaths were predictable.

The court heard Mr Philpotts was found nearby shortly after police were called to the dormer bungalow. He was apparently injured by the fire, and told officers he was "supposed to have died" in the incident.

Policeman Robert Hardwick described how Mr Philpotts' lips were burnt and his face was covered in soot. He was also said to have been smelling of petrol, and a lighter was found in his pocket.

The suspect then told officers he wanted to die in the fire. Mr Hardwick said in a statement: "Mr Philpotts said: 'Oh God.' It was like he realised the horror of his actions, like he had a flashback."

Mr Philpotts was later heard to have said: "I should've died in the fire. I wanted to die."

He told officers, who were unable to handcuff him due to the extent of the burns to his arms: "I am not a bad person. Why are you torturing me? You've tortured me for years."

Emergency services could not save 44-year-old Mrs Philpotts or her son.

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