The son of a 94-year-old who died after her step-grandson set fire to her house has said the images of her final days “haunt me” in a heartbreaking tribute.
Mary Gregory died after Tiernan Darnton, 21, used a lighter to set a curtain on fire in her home in Heysham, Lancashire in May 2018.
Her death was initially ruled an accident , but Darnton later confessed to his crime during a game of Truth or Dare with his friends.
Darnton, who was 17 at the time of the crime, was jailed for life with a minimum term of 15 years on Friday.
Mrs Gregory’s son Peter has bravely given a victim impact statement in court, laying bare the true cruelty the much-loved grandmother was subjected to by Darnton.
Speaking of the condition his mum was in after medics resuscitated in, Peter said smoke inhalation was so bad that even after nurses had bathed her, the smoke damage was still on her skin and hair, and the inside of her mouth was black.
He added: “Watching her try to speak, choking on her words, was truly awful. That is a memory I will never erase from my mind.
“Nor will I ever forget the vile cruelty she was subjected to. The images of her in her final days haunt me.”
He added that his daughter was in the middle of her GCSE’s at the time of Mrs Gregory’s death, and she had to sit one of her exams the day after the tragedy.
The killing has also ruined his relationship with his brother, Peter said, who chose to support his stepson Darnton.
Statement from victim’s family in full
The full victim personal statement read in court by Peter, on behalf of himself, his wife Lucy and Mrs Gregory’s three grandchildren, Katy, Amy and Daniel, said:
“On Monday May 28 2018 my life changed forever. When we got the call in the middle of the night to tell us that mum’s house was on fire and she had been trapped inside a burning building, screaming for help, it was devastating.
“We travelled to Lancaster (Royal Infirmary) immediately to learn that she had stopped breathing but had been resuscitated by the emergency services. We found her on a ventilator in intensive care and were utterly shocked and horrified at her injuries.
“My poor mum had suffered such horrendous smoke inhalation that even after being bathed by the nurses, still she had smoke damage on her skin and hair and the whole of the inside of her mouth was black.
“Watching her try to speak, choking on her words, was truly awful. That is a memory I will never erase from my mind. Nor will I ever forget the vile cruelty she was subjected to. The images of her in her final days haunt me.
“Mum’s death hit my whole family extremely hard. She was in reasonable health for a lady of almost 95 and I believe she would still be here with us today if Darnton had not killed her.
“Losing a parent is always hard but when they are taken from you by such a callous act, it is simply heartbreaking. My three children lost a dearly loved, kind and caring grandmother, and my wife a close friend and mother-in-law.
“My children have suffered through the actions of Tiernan Darnton. My middle child was in the middle of her GCSEs when mum was killed. Imagine a 16-year-old having to sit in a public exam when her grandmother has just had the most traumatic death conceivable.
“The actions of Darnton have had, and continue to have, repercussions throughout my family. Even now three years on, my two younger children are having their school and university educations disrupted by the mental trauma they have suffered and the repercussions of the trial.
“Having learnt that my mum’s death was at the hands of Tiernan Darnton, whom we had willingly welcomed into our family home, is disgusting and shattering.
“He was frequently in mum’s house in the final months leading to mum’s death. She despised and distrusted him, and did not want him anywhere near her.
“I must live with the burden that my brother (Chris Gregory, Darnton’s stepfather) did not heed the warnings from his mother to stop him going into her house, and even gave him keys.
“Not only have I lost my darling mum but I have now also lost my brother who has chosen to support an individual who murdered his own mother, rather than co-operate with the police inquiries.
“I never accepted that this was an accident caused by my mum. My family and I have had to live with that knowledge and anguish of not knowing what really happened on the night of May 28 2018. Now we do and I pray it gives us some closure.”
Lancs Live/MEN Media)
Mrs Gregory was discovered under a table in the conservatory of her smoke-logged bungalow on Levens Drive – and a probe by the local fire service concluded the most probable cause was a dropped or carelessly discarded cigarette and ruled out any third party involvement.
This then led to a coroner recording a verdict of an accidental death three years ago.
But police reopened the case in May 2019 following comments made by Darnton during a counselling session in which he said he killed Mrs Gregory – his stepfather’s mother.
During the inquiry it emerged that the killer had made a similar confession several weeks after his relative’s death, during a game of Truth or Dare with two friends in which he revealed his “darkest secret”.
He told the pair: “I have a secret I haven’t told anyone. I may have killed someone.”
When pressed, he said he started the blaze because he did not want Mrs Gregory, formerly from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, to suffer any longer from dementia, Preston crown court heard.
Darnton’s friends did not believe him and he persuaded them to keep quiet, but he told a counsellor in May 2019 about a friend “who could send me to prison cos of what he knows”.
Lancashire Police / SWNS)
He added that he had felt “powerful” at an event involving a person who had died – thought to be Mrs Gregory’s funeral – as he “knew what had happened and everyone else in the room didn’t”.
The female counsellor ended the session by saying to him “I’m not really clear what you’re saying but I think you’re trying to tell me you’ve killed someone”, to which Darnton mouthed “Yes”.
A week later he told the counsellor and his stepfather, Chris Gregory, 66, that he had started the fire and the matter was later passed to the police by the counsellor, the court was told.
Darnton was jailed for life with a minimum term of 15 years on Friday.
Sentencing Darnton to life, Mrs Justice Yip told him: “Murder had been on your mind for some time. On your own evidence, you were fascinated by serial killers and their crimes. You had dark thoughts.
“Internet searches which you made before and after you killed Mrs Gregory paint a worrying picture.
“Your opportunity to act on your dark thoughts came when your stepfather was away. In the early hours of 28 May 2018, you went to Mrs Gregory’s home and deliberately started a fire in one of the bedrooms.”
The judge went on: “It is hard to imagine the horror Mrs Gregory must have felt when she realised her house was on fire and was filling with smoke.
“Neighbours heard her screams. Despite her frailty, she tried to get out, but she had been trapped. The fire service found her near to the conservatory doors, where you had blocked her exit.
“Her final days were spent in hospital. Quite understandably, her condition in those days continues to haunt those who loved her. The manner of her death was particularly cruel.”
Darton was arrested at his family home in Combermere Road, Heysham, in May 2019, and examination of his mobile phone and laptop found internet searches made after the fire including “I’m a murderer”, “I’m a monster and I’m going to hell”, “I want to cause evil” and “Urge to kill again”.
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