Defendant Zachariah Blayden leaves Tweed Heads Local Court on Wednesday afternoon after Magistrate Michael Dakin postponed judgement on the arson case against him.
Defendant Zachariah Blayden leaves Tweed Heads Local Court on Wednesday afternoon after Magistrate Michael Dakin postponed judgement on the arson case against him. Scott Powick

Ruling delayed on fire that hurt fisherman's livelihood

THEY had been the best of friends, and had known each other for eleven years.

But a devastating blaze in the early hours of Saturday, March 18 this year changed everything.

Palm Beach man Zachariah Blayden, 23, faced Tweed Heads Local Court on Tuesday and Wednesday charged with the intentional or reckless destruction of property at Fingal Head.

Mr Blayden, who pleaded not guilty to the charge, had been invited to a party hosted by his long-time friend Joel Smith at the home of Mr Smith's father, David.

On Wednesday, the court heard the defence case, during which Mr Blayden's barrister, Peter O'Connor, called the accused, his mother Rebecca Wren and his expert witness, fire investigator Anthony Cafe.

Magistrate Michael Dakin had already heard on Tuesday from a host of prosecution witnesses, including David and Joel Smith and police and fire investigators.

In his closing address, Mr O'Connor said his client had no intention to cause harm to Mr Smith, but was shocked and distressed after the incident.

Mr O'Connor said this was why his client said nothing of the fire's cause to his long-term friend and the man who was like "a father figure”.

Mr Blayden did not deny responsibility for the blaze, which destroyed Mr Smith's shed and the commercial fishing equipment it contained, but he said it was not intentional.

As the night settled on the party, Mr Blayden said the group of friends began complaining of the cold.

Friends and family of Zachariah Blayden leave Tweed Heads Court on Wednesday afternoon.
Friends and family of Zachariah Blayden leave Tweed Heads Court on Wednesday afternoon. Scott Powick

The accused, who told the court he consumed about 24 standard beers, wine, MDMA and marijuana throughout the course of the evening, said he went in search of materials with which to light a fire in a fire pit, located near the home's patio.

After finding a charred, large log in the fire pit, Mr Blayden entered the nearby shed with hopes of finding dry wood, as it had been raining, he told the court.

There, lighting the way with his smartphone's torch, he found a large plastic jerry can which contained two-stroke fuel.

"I grabbed it... and opened it up,” Mr Blayden said.

"I had the idea that I could use it to put it on a bit of wood (in the fire pit) in order to speed things up.”

Mr Blayden said he'd replaced the lid before lifting the can, but when he picked it up he stumbled, splashing a large amount of fuel onto the floor.

When he looked up, Mr Blayden said the floor was alight.

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

"I ran out of the shed in disbelief... in panic mode,” Mr Blayden said.

Police prosecutor Garry Rowe asked Mr Blayden why he appeared not to be rushing on CCTV footage of him leaving the shed.

He also queried Mr Blayden's choice not to say anything of the cause to his close friends at the time, or in the days following the event.

Mr Blayden said his mother had instructed him not to say anything about the incident until they had more information. 

He told the court he had not shared details of the event until relaying them to Ms Wren on May 1, more than six weeks after the incident.

During questioning from his barrister, Peter O'Connor, Mr Blayden said he had been significantly affected by alcohol and drugs at the time of the incident.

He recalled a good relationship with David Smith and his son, referring to the victim as "a positive father-figure”.

Mr Cafe, who along with appearing as a witness had advised the defence throughout the proceedings, said as the fire reached the destructive "flashover” phase, it was "very difficult” to determine a single point of origin.

Mr Cafe said the "small puff” of smoke witnessed by Lee Agius, who was at the party, was not indicative of a large amount of accelerant being used.

He said it didn't appear the fire had been deliberately lit.

Zachariah Blayden (right) leaves Tweed Heads Local Court with family and friends.
Zachariah Blayden (right) leaves Tweed Heads Local Court with family and friends. Scott Powick

This was in contrast with testimony from the prosecution's expert witnesses on Tuesday, which outlined v-patterns and other indicators which suggested a point of ignition in the centre of the shed.

Mr Rowe questioned Mr Cafe on the method of his investigation, which was based on information given to him by the defence.

He asked whether failing to subpoena reports from prosecution's expert witnesses, and the fact he had not attended the scene in person, had undermined his capacity to assess prospective causes of the blaze.

Mr Cafe said he had been given a copy of the defendant's version of events on Monday, the day before the hearing began.

Ms Wren said her son had been visibly affected by the incident and echoed her son's version of the incident, in which he spilled fuel, which quickly burst into flames.

While no evidence pointed to the cause of the ignition, Mr O'Connor claimed a possible spark from a bait freezer kept inside the shed couldn't be ruled out.

He argued this left enough doubt to avoid a conviction.

Mr Rowe disputed this.

"The prosecution submits that (Mr Blayden's) version of events is a fabrication and that version of events is a recent invention,” Mr Rowe said.

He argued there was "significant CCTV evidence” showing Mr Blayden enter the shed, then leave just before it bursts into flames and said the defence case was "not credible”.

"He doesn't tell anyone until May 1,” Mr Rowe said.

"That needs to be treated... with considerable scrutiny.

"The rational behaviour asserted by the defence... is simply a fabrication to nullify his offending behaviour.”

According to the CCTV footage, Mr Blayden was inside the shed for 48 seconds.

Magistrate Michael Dakin has reserved his ruling on the matter to go before Byron Bay Local Court this Friday, December 1.



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