Glasgow & West Scotland

Revenge fire that led to murder of Sharkey family

Image caption Angela Sharkey lost her two children and husband Tommy in the fire

"The three things that I loved the most in my life are dead."

That is how Angela Sharkey summed up the horrific loss she was struggling to come to terms with in the wake of the fire at the family home in Helensburgh.

The unimaginable grief of losing her son, daughter and husband, made even more acute by the knowledge that the fire was no accident.

In the early hours of a Sunday morning on 24 July 2011, the Sharkey family were fast asleep.

Eight-year-old Bridget should have been on a sleepover at a friend's house, but she had come back home at 10 o'clock the night before, missing her mum.

Thomas, aged 21, was back home from his second year on a golf scholarship in the United States.

He had just picked up the prize for most improved player on his course at Georgia Southern University.

The weekend of the fire he was competing at his local club, and winning.

Mrs Sharkey looked in on them both before she went off to bed around midnight.

Her husband, Tommy, was not back from the pub yet. He had been across the road in his local.

Thick smoke

He was on good form, even having a go at the karaoke before going for a takeaway and heading home shortly after 01:00.

About 05:00, petrol was poured through the letterbox of the flat, and set on fire. This was the only outside door.

During the trial, the jury watched a reconstruction of what happened next. It showed how the fire would have spread.

Image caption The jury was shown pictures of the fire damage to the Sharkey family home

Within seconds, the coats hanging behind the door were burning and falling to the floor, thick black smoke filled the hallway, the UPVC door melted and crumpled, flames licked up the walls, through the vestibule and further into the flat.

The temperature reached more than 900 degrees.

Those firefighters first on the scene reported smoke so thick they could not see their hands in front of their faces.

They had to carry out their search by touch, making their way up and down the charred staircase.

They brought out Thomas and Bridget Sharkey. Both children appeared lifeless and could not be revived. Their mum Angela was unconscious.

Tommy Sharkey had fallen asleep in the living room. He was rescued after escaping out onto the window ledge.

But he had suffered 30% burns and died in hospital six days later from multiple organ failure.

Like his children, he had been killed by inhaling the thick, hot smoke and gases from the fire.

A huge police investigation was launched, named Operation Endeavour, with 70 officers assigned to the case.

Drug dealing

From early on, the police were convinced the motive for the blaze lay in Tommy Sharkey's past.

At the time of the fire Mr Sharkey had become well-known in Helensburgh for his charity fundraising.

He had also organised a charity dinner in the town just months before.

Image caption Thomas Sharkey Snr served a prison sentence for drug dealing

But in the mid-1990s he had served a prison sentence for drug dealing, and he still had a considerable reputation in the town.

The year before he died, he had plans to become a pub landlord.

Mr Sharkey refurbished the Mariners bar on Helensburgh's seafront. Just before it was due to open, it was burnt to the ground.

The jury heard that was just one of many mysterious fires in the Helensburgh area, in the three years before the fire at the Sharkey's home.

As detectives investigated each of these, a pattern began to emerge that led them to Scott Snowden.

The Garth Inn, gutted by fire in June 2009. Scott Snowden had recently been escorted off the premises.

A house in Rhu, set on fire in September 2009, just days after Scott Snowden argued with the owners.

A flat in Helensburgh, targeted in January 2011 after Scott Snowden fell out with a man whose family lived there.

But every time detectives found a link to Snowden, they were also confronted with a cast-iron alibi.

Awful revenge

Police discovered that when these fires were lit, he was generally out of town, or in the case of the Sharkey fire, out of the country.

Scott Snowden was a cocaine dealer. The prosecutor, Advocate Depute Alex Prentice QC, described him as a man who, if humiliated, crossed or even just annoyed, would exact awful revenge.

Revenge more often than not committed by the man on trial with him - Robert Jennings.

Image caption The jury heard how the Garth Inn was gutted by fire after Snowden was barred

The prosecution argued Scott Snowden hated Tommy Sharkey.

When he became aware he was going to be banned from Mr Sharkey's pub, he had it burned down.

That ruined Mr Sharkey financially, but it did not seem to be enough.

The hatred continued to grow, fuelled by Snowden's belief that Mr Sharkey had tried to set him up in a drugs deal.

Snowden became enraged when Tommy intervened in a drugs debt he was owed by Mr Sharkey's niece. Mr Sharkey told the family he had sorted Snowden out.

Distinctive walk

Snowden did not want to lose face. He wanted to assert himself as the big man of the town.

Months later, Snowden went on holiday to Mexico. Robert Jennings had his orders.

Jennings was caught on CCTV near the scene. When he was detained by police a year later, his distinctive walk was recognised by one of the detectives.

The mysterious man in the hooded top was Robert Jennings. But this time, being Snowden's violent enforcer led to murder.

In his address to the jury, the judge Lord Matthews told them that for the Crown to have proved the charge of murder "you must be satisfied the accused killed people either with the wicked intention to cause death, or had a wicked recklessness as to the fate of their victims".

The case against Snowden and Jennings suggested they had little regard for their victims - victims who number many more than those who died that night.

There was also the man who fell out with Snowden in a pub, and punched him. He had ammonia thrown in his face, and petrol poured through the letterbox of his family's home. It was then set on fire.

There was the man who worked with Snowden at Rhu marina. When he complained about him, he was slashed from ear to mouth by Robert Jennings, who attacked him outside his home, in the dark, in his driveway. The victim was stabbed numerous times. He and his family are still traumatised.

For Angela Sharkey it has been two years to the day since the fire which killed her family.

As the only survivor, she was the first witness in the case. In the later stages of the trial, she came back to court to hear the closing speeches and the verdicts.

From the first interview she gave after leaving hospital, she has always maintained that finding out who targeted her family, and why, was not nearly as important to her as making sure it could not happen to anyone else.

"It's not right, innocent children", she said. "I've just got to try to get on with my life now, without them."

Scott Snowden, 38, and Robert Jennings, 50, were convicted of murdering three members of the Sharkey family by setting fire to their home in Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute.

Snowden was also found guilty of five fire-raising charges, three assaults, one breach of the peace and one charge of supplying cocaine.

Jennings was also found guilty of two assaults and supplying cocaine.

Charges against Jennings for fires at a house in Rhu in September 2009, and the Garth Inn, Helensburgh, on June 2009 and at the Mariners pub in Helensburgh in April 2010 were found not proven.

Both men are expected to be sentenced on Thursday, when they will receive mandatory life terms.

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