Norma Bell death: Gareth Dack guilty of Hartlepool murder

Norma Bell Image copyright Family photograph
Image caption The court heard Gareth Dack knew Norma Bell and grew up on the street where she lived

A "penniless" thief has been found guilty of murdering a foster mother and setting fire to her house to destroy the evidence.

Norma Bell, 79, who had fostered more than 50 youngsters, was found strangled in her burning home in Westbourne Road, Hartlepool, in April.

Gareth Dack, 33, ransacked her home, stole a boxed TV and £700, and used her phone to call sex chat lines.

He had denied murder and arson during his trial at Teesside Crown Court.

The father-of-four started fires in Mrs Bell's terraced home and turned on the gas in a bid to cause an explosion.

Dack, who had borrowed £10 from his victim the weekend before, claimed he was not responsible and told the court she was a "wonderful woman".

Image copyright Cleveland Police
Image caption Gareth Dack declined to answer police questions

DNA matches were found inside the property, which Dack claimed were a result of him carrying out odd jobs for the pensioner.

When he was asked why he did not answer detectives' questions after he was arrested, he could only say he thought the police were corrupt and had not wanted to help.

Outside court, Ch Supt Alastair Simpson, of Cleveland Police, said Dack had interfered with Mrs Bell's clothing and cut her underwear.

He added there was no evidence that he had sexually assaulted her, but said police had not ruled out the possibility.

In addition to being strangled, Mrs Bell had injuries to her ribs and shoulders consistent with someone kneeling on her.

Image copyright Cleveland Police
Image caption Dack set fire to Mrs Bell's home to destroy evidence of his crime

Hartlepool Council paid tribute to Mrs Bell. She and her husband had three children and had six long-term foster children, and cared for many others for a shorter time.

A spokesman said: "They were active members of the Foster Parent Association and helped in the recruitment of new foster carers.

"Their commitment was succinctly summed up in the annual review of their fostering in 1978, which stated that 'the standard of care given to the foster children placed in the Bell household has always been of the highest order'."

Dack is due to be sentenced on Thursday.

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