Australia –A second inquest into the death of a man in a deliberately-lit bushfire in NSW’s Hunter Valley six years ago has failed to determine who set the blaze.
NSW Deputy State Coroner Carl Milovanovich on Tuesday found no evidence to support allegations the Rural Fire Service (RFS) inadvertently started the blaze during a training exercise and tried to cover it up.
He handed down an open finding, but also found the police investigation was “deficient” and called for a reward to be offered for information on the blaze.
The fire, which broke out near Cessnock racecourse on October 19, 2002, claimed the life of Ronald Gillett and destroyed several homes.
Mr Gillett was killed when flames engulfed his car at Abernethy, just south of Cessnock.
“The inquest/inquiry has also served the purpose of clearly exonerating the RFS from any involvement in the lighting of the fire and I note that the coroner effectively said that following the first inquest/inquiry,” Mr Milovanovich said in handing down his findings.
Mr Milovanovich said the inquest had found the original police investigation into the fire did not identify Brendan Hokin, saying he “probably remains a person of interest”.
Mr Hokin was charged with lighting a fire in the area two days earlier, and was smoking cannabis and depressed at the time.
“That failure would have denied the police the ability to put into place appropriate investigative strategies that could have served to totally exonerate Mr Hokin or in fact implicate him,” Mr Milovanovich said.
Mr Milovanovich presided over the original inquest in 2004, before the current inquiry was set up in response to a private investigation by resident Gary Price.
“As the coroner in both the first and second inquest/inquiry the focus has been on identifying who lit the fire and determining if there is evidence for criminal prosecution,” he said.
“Regrettably, this second inquest has not advanced that prospect.”
Mr Milovanovich said the Cessnock community, Mr Price and Mr Gillett’s family had suffered a great loss due to the criminal actions of “one or a number of persons”.