Why real estate agent was found not guilty of A'ville fire
HAVING consumed two bottles of wine and with no memory of the hours in question, Julianne Marree Butler had despaired over how she'd defend an arson allegation.
But a court has found the Alstonville real estate agent not guilty of setting her office alight.
In a hearing before Ballina Local Court on Thursday, the 50-year-old successfully defended a charge of recklessly damaging Alstonville's Century 21 office by fire between 11pm on November 1 last year and 1.20am the following day.
The court heard the fire was contained to a filing cabinet, but Lynette Outerbridge, who is its franchisee along with her husband Noel, said much of the office and its contents were damaged in the fire.
"The heat was so intense that all the photos frames we had the listings in, in the front window, actually melted and fell out of the front windows," Mrs Outerbridge said.
In her evidence, Ms Butler recalled running errands, buying one bottle of wine in Alstonville about 2pm and another at 7.22pm on Thursday, November 1.
She had not yet returned to work since suffering a stroke seven weeks prior.
She drank both bottles of wine at home over several hours and after numerous phone calls, the last of which ended shortly after 11pm, Ms Butler said she had "absolutely no memory" of anything until she awoke in her pyjamas the next morning.
Ms Butler recalled a conversation with other real estate workers - on the night of November 2 - during which there was lengthy discussion of the fire and its cause. It "terrified" her because of the blank in her memory.
The court heard she expressed concerns about whether she was involved in the fire to numerous people.
This included to two paramedics who attended her home on November 3, after she attempted suicide.
One of the paramedics told the court Ms Butler was "worried she started the fire but ... didn't know because she didn't have any recollection of that night".
The other also recalled Ms Butler's concerns about the fire.
In an interview with police, Ms Butler was open about "hating" Mr Outerbridge and the court heard she had written what was believed to be a suicide note, in which she apologised to him in some way.
The note made no specific reference to the fire or any overt admission, the court heard.
There is no suggestion there was any material link between the fire and Ms Butler's attempt to take her own life.
Ms Butler told the court of her frustration at not being able to work since her stroke, and the physical difficulties it had left her with.
She said her alcohol consumption on November 1 - paired with her ongoing ailments - meant she could not have been responsible for the blaze.
She still used a walking stick when she fronted court last week.
Police prosecutor Brett Gradisnik said the time that elapsed during Ms Butler's drinking session may have lessened the strength of its impact upon her.
He suggested Ms Butler was less intoxicated than she claimed and said it was plausible she could have taken herself to the real estate office that night.
Ms Butler disagreed.
When defence solicitor Vince Boss asked prosecution witness Sonya Newman - who was a firefighter at the blaze and a friend of Ms Butler - about his client's mobility, she said her movement was seriously impacted by the stroke and that she would be "absolutely legless" after two bottles of wine.
Sgt Gradisnik stressed Ms Butler's behaviour between about 11pm and 4am the night of the fire "can't be accounted for".
"My submission is it's accounted for by her ... going to these particular premises and starting the fire," he said.
Mr Boss, however, said there was "nothing that directly links Ms Butler to being there at the time this fire has taken place" because "she was not there on that night".
Magistrate Karen Stafford said the letter to Mr Outerbridge and other conversations involving Ms Butler were not overt admissions, and could be reasonably explained in the context of her suicide attempt.
"I can't be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the prosecution has excluded any reasonable hypothesis consistent with innocence," she said.
Ms Butler wept and was later embraced by loved ones after Ms Stafford gave her not guilty verdict.
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