The George Hotel at Hatherleigh goes up in flames last December. Inset: Lee Garner
A SACKED chef who disabled fire alarms in a hotel busy with Christmas drinkers before setting it alight, has been jailed for six years.
Lee Garner, 42, had been dismissed from his job at the thatched George Hotel, in the market town of Hatherleigh, North Devon, just a few days before Christmas.
As bar staff were evacuating the 15th-century, Grade II-listed hotel on the northern fringes of Dartmoor near Okehampton, Garner told them it was a false alarm.
He launched the arson attack on December 23 last year, destroying the ancient inn, which, it is believed, will cost £2.5 million to rebuild.
Yesterday, Exeter Crown Court was told that Garner had insisted it was a false alarm to make sure that the flames spread.
The court was not told how Garner had started the blaze.
Despite the efforts of 100 firefighters and 20 appliances, the hotel, dating back to 1450, was totally destroyed.
Garner had been working as a chef at the pub for only a few weeks when he was dismissed for helping himself to alcohol.
The court was told there was a stand-off between tenants running the pub and Garner over his unpaid wages. Garner had become abusive when he went in to try to get his money and ended up taking some valuable kitchen knives.
He told his wife Anita that he was "going to burn the George Hotel to the ground" because he did not like the tenant, Bob White.
Garner and his wife had been to her works Christmas party on the day of the arson attack and the defendant was drunk, and had also been taking illicit street drugs and medicines to which he had an addiction.
Prosecutor Andrew Oldland said that Garner was "agitated" when he later took a taxi to Hatherleigh.
The taxi driver dropped him off in the village but he ran off without paying.
Mr Oldland said: "The next thing the driver sees and hears are the blue lights of the fire brigade.
"The defendant had gone to the public house to deliberately set a fire.
"The fire alarm went off.
"Bar staff on duty that night started to clear the pub as the defendant came from the kitchen area and said: 'Don't worry, this always happens all the time'.
"He said: 'I know how to turn off the fire alarm, I'll turn off the fire alarm'."
The bar staff stopped clearing out the pub but soon realised there was a blaze.
Mr Oldland added: "Garner deliberately disabled the fire alarm in order to allow the fire to take hold to ensure serious damage and destruction of the public house, thereby endangering lives of those within the pub and the fire brigade."
Mr Oldland said the blaze was a deliberate "inferno".
Garner, of West Street, Okehampton, Devon, was arrested but made no comment to police.
He admitted arson, being reckless as to whether life was endangered.
Garner also admitted a second charge of harassment of his wife when he sent her text messages after the blaze saying he would kill her as he tried to warn her off.
Judge Graham Cottle jailed Garner for six years. He will serve half the sentence behind bars and when released, he will remain on licence for four years.
The judge said the fire spread after he disabled the alarm "substantially increasing the risk to those who remained in the premises".
Judge Cottle added: "Mercifully, nobody was injured. There was a massive response from the fire service but they were unable to save this historic building."
Garner had a long criminal history, including burglary and violence – he had been serving a suspended jail sentence for handling stolen goods at the time of the fire. He had previously threatened to burn down his mother-in-law's house, although that did not lead to a criminal conviction, the court was told.
It is understood rebuilding work will start in October and that the new inn will be completed during summer 2010.