Man who set fire to homeless shelter and left wife, 22, with catastrophic injuries is jailed
A man who set fire to a homeless shelter last year and left a 22-year-old woman with catastrophic injuries has been sentenced to nine and a half years in prison.
The Depaul Hostel fire in Dublin 7, started by Keith Riggs, 38, in March last year left Shauna O’Brien with catastrophic and life-threatening injuries after she fell unconscious trying to escape the fire.
In a victim statement prepared by her parents on behalf of Ms O’Brien and read in court by Judge Dara Hayes, Ms O’Brien said Riggs “took her life and children away from her”.
The statement outlined the serious injuries Ms O’Brien sustained in the fire and how her life has been completely changed.
Riggs, 38, of Deanstown Avenue, Finglas, Dublin, pleaded guilty to two counts of arson and one endangerment on 26 March 2022 at the Little Green Street hostel.
The court heard Ms O’Brien remains in intensive care under specialized medical teams from Mater Hospital and from Boston.
Judge Hayes handed down a verdict in Dublin Circuit Criminal Court today, saying it was “a very serious offense with significant aggravating factors”.
He noted four people were taken to hospital following the fire, with Ms O’Brien seriously injured.
Judge Hayes last March said Ms O’Brien was a “22-year-old woman with her life ahead of her” but her life had been irrevocably changed by the “appalling fire”.
He also noted the impact on Ms O’Brien’s two young children, their parents and family.
Judge Hayes said it cost Dublin City Council over €2million to repair the hostel and residents elsewhere during that period.
These are “very high costs” to be borne by the local authority at a time when the number of homeless people is reaching record levels, the judge said.
“Even if no one had been in the building but him [Riggs] started the fire, it would still have had a significant impact on homeless services,” Justice Hayes said.
He said Riggs’ warning to Ms O’Brien and his call to 999 showed an understanding of the potential consequences of his actions.
He said while Riggs was having suicidal thoughts at the time, it didn’t excuse his actions or that he was putting others in danger.
Judge Hayes said mitigating factors included Rigg’s guilty plea and remorse. He said Riggs had a long history of mental health issues and developed psychosis in his 20s. He noted that Riggs is on medication and has engaged in services while in custody.
Judge Hayes gave Riggs a total sentence of 11 years, with the last 18 months being suspended under severe conditions. This includes Riggs placing himself under the supervision of the probation service and turning to community mental health services after his release from prison.
Judge Hayes backdated the verdict to March 27, 2022.
He expressed his heartfelt condolences to Ms O’Brien’s family members present at court and thanked them for their dignity.
He said there was nothing the court could do to restore Ms O’Brien to the life she had before the fire or to ease her pain.
At a previous sentencing hearing, Ms O’Brien’s parents said in a victim impact statement: “This is hell on earth for our little girl. She is in excruciating pain and even more pain from the surgeries. She cannot breathe unaided and is in emotional hell; devastated at being blind and unable to hold or see her children for almost nine months.”
Garda Conor Whelan has told prosecutors Shane Costelloe SC that it has cost Dublin City Council over €2.8million to repair the Depaul Hostel and house residents elsewhere while the work is going on.
The court learned that the Depaul hostel accommodates around 80 to 100 people and that there were at least 10 residents in the building on the evening in question.
CCTV evidence from inside the hostel was played back for court and showed Riggs going into a downstairs toilet at 4.51pm and re-emerging around 50 minutes later, followed by an orange flash and a cloud of dark, dense smoke.
Riggs was then seen on CCTV taking the fire escape stairs to the second floor, briefly going into Ms O’Brien’s room before leaving and going into a nearby shower room. He then came out of the shower room, went back into Mrs O’Brien’s room, then went back into the shower room and stayed on the top floor for a few minutes while the area filled with smoke.
Riggs then walked down the stairwell and exited the building, hearing the court not before dialing 999 and telling them he was “trapped at the top”.
Firefighters responded to multiple 999 calls and began rescuing people from the residence, including two people who had passed out from smoke inhalation and had to be physically removed.
Riggs was taken to the hospital, where he gave a different name than his real date of birth and later examined himself.
The next morning, the court heard, Riggs presented himself at Bridewell Garda station and said he believed he was wanted in connection with fires the previous day. He couldn’t say why he felt wanted and made extensive use of his right to remain silent.
Riggs was interviewed several times by gardaí and once asked, “Did you try to kill them all, or yourself, or what?” he responded by saying, “Obviously.”
Riggs also told Gardaí: “I told her to run, come out because it’s on fire, I didn’t tell her to run into the frigging fire. I’m fed up.”
In his fifth Garda interview, Riggs provided a note with his name and date of birth, adding: “I’m unstable at the moment. I haven’t taken my medicine, I’m feeling very bad at the moment. I didn’t want to put anyone in danger. The people who are hurt – I’m very, very sorry. I should be in the coma, not her.”
A medical report for Ms O’Brien states that her lungs are so badly scarred from inhaling toxic acids, smoke and superheated air that she cannot breathe without a ventilator.
The court heard she had multiple surgeries to remove scar tissue, that her prognosis is uncertain and that discussions were held with her family about a possible end-of-life journey.
“Her situation remains extremely serious and there are concerns as to whether she will survive in the near future,” the report said.
Michael Bowman SC, who is defending himself, read out text messages sent by Riggs on the day of the Depaul hostel fire and said: “I will be at peace bro. Tell me Ma, I love her to the last detail too. I’ll catch you in the next life. tell my son i love him chin up stay strong love you x.”
Mr Bowman said his client pleaded early and said it was not his intention to cause harm and he apologized for the harm he had caused.
The court heard that Riggs came from an exceptionally difficult background and that his father had abandoned him and his mother because of her schizophrenia, resulting in his being placed in custody.
He dropped out of school at 14 due to behavioral problems and became addicted to heroin at 14 and addicted to methadone at 16.
Riggs engaged in community-based football training but was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered significant and severe episodes of psychosis, the court heard. He has multiple criminal records.
In a victim account written by Ms O’Brien’s parents and read by a lawyer in court, they said it was heartbreaking to see her in an induced coma, not knowing whether she would live or die.
They said they have been called to the hospital countless times over the past eight months to say goodbye and that although she has had various surgeries to repair her airway, the scar tissue keeps growing back, effectively suffocating her.
“She told me she loves me. She cried many times over not being able to see her babies; she hoped they would not forget their mama.
“We are very concerned about what the future holds for her, even if she survives,” the statement said.
A second victim statement was read on behalf of another resident who went back into the smoke to help her disabled husband out of the building.
The woman was hospitalized for five days and said she still experiences moments of fear and terror and suffers from panic attacks, nighttime awakenings and depression that have never afflicted her before.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/courts/man-who-set-fire-to-homeless-hostel-leaving-woman-22-with-catastrophic-injuries-is-jailed-42319228.html Man who set fire to homeless shelter and left wife, 22, with catastrophic injuries is jailed