Man jailed over Eastbourne house fire murders

Image caption Anthony Scrase was known to the victims but was not a family friend

A man has been given two life sentences for murdering a woman and her daughter in a house fire in Sussex.

Anthony Scrase, 37, of no fixed address, was told he would serve at least 20 years after earlier admitting the charges at Lewes Crown Court.

Sally-Ann Baxter Smith, 38, and Lois, 14, died from the effects of smoke inhalation after the fire in Eastbourne in 2003.

Two other children, a boy and a girl, escaped from an upstairs window.

Neither suffered serious injury during the fire in Beach Road.

Police said Scrase, who was brought up in south London, had lived next door but one to the victims and was known to them but was not a family friend.

Thick smoke

After Scrase pleaded guilty, Det Ch Insp Trevor Bowles said: "The motive has always been questionable. However, jealousy, rage and a violent temper feature in the case."

During the trial, the court heard Scrase launched the arson attack "in some misguided belief" that he would satisfy the wishes of his partner Anna Fitzgerald who lived two doors away.

Prosecuting, Richard Barton said Ms Fitzgerald's former husband Matthew Pettiford was in an on-off relationship with Ms Baxter Smith and whereas he wanted to commit to a more serious relationship, she was reluctant.

Image caption Sally-Ann Baxter Smith and her daughter, Lois, died in hospital

On the night of the blaze, Ms Baxter Smith, Lois and another daughter Rhiannon had dinner at their home with family friend Cheryl Seppings and her son Jay.

Later Ms Seppings went home, but let Jay stay the night because he had fallen asleep on the sofa.

In the early hours, they were woken by thick black smoke and flames in the two-storey house.

Jay and Rhiannon managed to escape, but Ms Baxter Smith and Lois were found on a bed with their arms wrapped around each other.

Scrase, who has 75 previous convictions, is already a serving prisoner.

Mr Barton told the court that in 2009 the ex-wife of Scrase's brother John visited him in prison, where a recording of a conversation was made with Scrase where he admitted setting fire to Ms Baxter Smith's home.

Jurors were also told that Ms Fitzgerald had changed her original police statement, in which she had confirmed Scrase's original account that he was at home with her on the night of the fire, to say that he had got up in the early hours following a row and left the house.

On his return he said: "That's the last time you'll be seeing them," meaning Ms Baxter Smith.

Ms Fitzgerald said she subsequently heard Scrase telling his brother that he had set the fire by lighting tissue which he put through the back window.

Sentencing, Judge Mr Justice Keith said the case was aggravated by the fact that Scrase set out to kill, rather than cause anyone serious harm.

Outside court, Chelsea Wickings, Ms Baxter Smith's daughter, said: "We have waited seven years to see this man in court to be sentenced. No sentence will ever bring back my mum and sister.

"All the family have suffered over the years and continue to do so.

"Now Scrase is in prison where he belongs, we can get on with our lives with the knowledge of who did it and why."

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