Gold Coast man Zachariah Blayden (right) leaves Tweed Heads Local Court after his hearing on Wednesday.
Gold Coast man Zachariah Blayden (right) leaves Tweed Heads Local Court after his hearing on Wednesday. Scott Powick

Longtime friend found guilty of destructive arson

A GOLD Coast man has been found guilty of setting fire to his best friend's father's shed in Fingal Head.

Zachariah Blayden, 23, faced trial in Tweed Heads Local Court on Tuesday and Wednesday, charged with intentionally or recklessly destroying property by fire.

Magistrate Michael Dakin outlined the prosecution and defence cases before handing down his decision at Byron Bay Local Court on Friday afternoon.

Blayden, who lives in Palm Beach and works at a Burleigh Heads restaurant, was among those who attended a party at the Fingal Rd home owned by David Smith on the afternoon of Friday, March 17, this year.

The party was hosted by Mr Smith's son, Joel - a long-term friend of Blayden's.

Shortly after 2am, Mr Smith's shed went up in flames.

It had contained $188,000 worth of commercial fishing gear, which formed Mr Smith's livelihood.

Blayden was captured on CCTV entering the shed. He spent about 48 seconds inside.

He is also seen on CCTV overlooking the deck, holding what appears to be a cigarette lighter.

After a short time, partygoers became aware of the blaze, including Joel Smith, who was upstairs at the time, affected by alcohol.

Defendant Zachariah Blayden leaves Tweed Heads Court.
Defendant Zachariah Blayden leaves Tweed Heads Court. Scott Powick

Throughout the week, the court heard Blayden had consumed about 24 beers along with the drugs ecstasy and marijuana.

He claimed to have been looking for material to light a fire in the nearby fire pit, as the group began to complain of the cold. But he told no one of his actions.

When he found fuel in a jerry can, with which he hoped to douse a large log in the fire pit, Mr Blayden claimed to have wrapped his arms around it, lost balance and spilled the flammable liquid on the floor.

He told the court the floor went up in flames suddenly.

In the prosecution case, senior firefighter Bernard Daly was among investigators who spoke of v-shaped marks and other indicators which suggested the fire had begun between two boxes containing fishing nets.

"(Mr Daly) ruled out the cause of ignition being of natural causes,” Magistrate Dakin said on Friday.

"He ruled out ignition by accidental causes.”

Mr Dakin said the defence case relied on the testimony of fire investigator Anthony Cafe, who did not attend the scene.

Defence barrister Peter O'Connor suggested a possible spark from the nearby bait fridge may have ignited fuel vapours, explaining the sudden ignition.

But Mr Dakin referred to investigators' findings that the rear of the freezer was minimally damaged by the fire and noted no information about the brand of freezer or its likelihood to produce a spark while running was put to the court.

Mr Dakin said the fact Mr Cafe was only given a copy of Mr Blayden's version of events on Monday afternoon - the eve of the hearing's commencement - "seriously reduced the weight that can be attached to his evidence”.

Mr Dakin also raised issues of untruthfulness on the defendant's part since the incident.

When Blayden phoned Triple 0 - as had another partygoer - he repeatedly gave an incorrect return phone number.

He referred to himself as "Jack” and didn't correct the emergency operator when she referred to him as such. He also failed to give the correct address for the property.

Despite Blayden blaming this on the impact of the drugs and alcohol he had consumed - which the court heard was not a large amount for him to take in a party context - Mr Dakin accepted prosecutor Garry Rowe's comments the accused didn't appear to be as intoxicated as he claimed in CCTV footage.

While the defendant's "good character” and lack of criminal record was raised in court, Mr Dakin said this was not enough to create sufficient doubt.

Mr Rowe applied to have bail revoked, but this was dismissed.

Blayden will be sentenced at Inverell Local Court - where Mr Dakin will then be located - on March 1.

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