A student who murdered a 94-year-old dementia sufferer by setting fire to her house confessed during a truth or dare game to killing her.
Tiernan Darnton, 21, must serve a minimum of 15 years, after being found guilty of the murder which saw him start the blaze by setting fire to the curtains at Mary Gregory’s house where she lived alone, and blocking exits and unplugging the phone so she couldn’t get out or call for help.
Mrs Gregory, who was the mum of Darnton’s step-father, was taken to hospital after the fire on 28 May, 2018, but died days later.
He was handed a life term on Friday after being found guilty the previous day and told by a judge that “murder had been on your mind for some time”.
The court also heard “disturbing material” – not presented to the jury in Darnton’s trial – had also been found in his possession including plans to stalk and attack women and a “kill list” containing the names of multiple people.
After the murder he carried out internet searches such as “feeling guilty for murder” and “I’m a monster and I’m going to hell”.
He admitted his “darkest secret” to pals during a game of truth or dare weeks after Mrs Gregory was laid to rest, a court heard.
The court heard he told pals. “I have a secret I haven’t told anyone. I may have killed someone.”
He then admitted he killed his ‘grandmother’, explained how he did it and said he did not want her to suffer any more as she had dementia.
Prosecutors said the then 17-year-old persuaded his friends not to say anything about the truth or dare game.
But nearly a year later went on to make a similar admission about his crime to his step-father and a counsellor, who passed the information to police.
Coroner had ruled death as accidental
Mrs Gregory was pulled from the two bedroom bungalow in Heysham, Lancashire, where she lived alone by firefighters.
An initial investigation by police and the fire brigade found the fire started as the result of a discarded cigarette and an inquest ruled her death to be accidental.
A jury unanimously found Darnton guilty of her murder after a week-long trial at Preston Crown Court.
Emergency services were called to Mrs Gregory’s bungalow shortly after 4am on May 28.
She was taken to hospital following the blaze but she sadly died on 1 June, 2018. Her cause of death was given as pneumonia and smoke inhalation.
In May 2019, Darnton made a confession to his counsellor, sparking a new investigation led by Lancashire Police’s major investigation team.
Further enquiries led officers to conclude the fire had in fact been started deliberately.
Darnton was charged with murder in March of this year.
What has Mrs Gregory’s family said?
In a statement following the sentencing hearing, the family of Mrs Gregory said they wanted to emphasise that Darnton had no biological or legal connection with the family.
They said: “On behalf of my side of the family I want to start by thanking DCI Zoe Russo, DI Jo Dent and each and every one of their colleagues at Lancashire Constabulary. They have pursued this case with professionalism and dedication, passionate in their determination to provide justice for my mother.
“I also want to thank our brilliant legal team led by David McLachlan QC for their painstaking commitment in presenting the facts of this case so that the truth could finally be told. I am immensely grateful to the judge and all the officers of the court for their efficient and considerate management of this case. I also want to thank the members of the jury for their time and careful consideration of the evidence in reaching their decision.
“The last three and a half years have been traumatic for my family. We lost a loving mother and grandmother, aunt and dear friend in horrendous circumstances. We were never satisfied that the initial findings of the Coroner were accurate.
“Now that the true and full facts of the fire have come to light and the perpetrator of this callous and evil act is behind bars, we can at long last have some closure and solace knowing that justice has been served for my mum.”
Drawings detailing hiding places and quick exits found
Preston Crown Court heard detailed evidence placed Darnton at Mrs Gregory’s house around the time of the fire.
A packet of Tunnock’s teacakes and a can of Coca Cola purchased at a nearby service station at 2.20am were discovered in the kitchen at the scene, the court heard.
Evidence shown to the jury also included drawings found at Darnton’s home address outlining the floorplan of Mrs Gregory’s bungalow.
They contained labels including “good hiding place” and “quick exit” and references for needing a “good alibi”.
Darnton’s laptop was seized following his arrest which revealed internet searches from the days after the fire including; “Mental health support for murderers”, “Feeling guilty for murder” and “I’m a monster and I’m going to hell.”
The police investigation also found the spare key was missing from the outside key box and one of two smoke alarms at the property had been disabled.
The home telephone was disconnected, meaning Mrs Gregory couldn’t call for help.
‘Murder had been on your mind for some time’
Sentencing Darnton to life, Mrs Justice Yip told him: “Murder had been on your mind for some time. On your own evidence, you were fascinated by serial killers and their crimes. You had dark thoughts.
“Internet searches which you made before and after you killed Mrs Gregory paint a worrying picture.
“Your opportunity to act on your dark thoughts came when your stepfather was away. In the early hours of 28 May 2018, you went to Mrs Gregory’s home and deliberately started a fire in one of the bedrooms.”
The judge went on: “It is hard to imagine the horror Mrs Gregory must have felt when she realised her house was on fire and was filling with smoke.
“Neighbours heard her screams. Despite her frailty, she tried to get out, but she had been trapped. The fire service found her near to the conservatory doors, where you had blocked her exit.
“Her final days were spent in hospital. Quite understandably, her condition in those days continues to haunt those who loved her. The manner of her death was particularly cruel.”
Darnton put forward a ‘concoction of lies’
Detective Chief Inspector Zoe Russo from Lancashire Police Force Major Incident Team said: “Darnton tried to convince the jury that he was Mary Gregory’s loving and devoted grandson. Make no mistake, Darnton was not related in any way to Mary Gregory. Darnton’s assertions of love and devotion were nothing more than a distraction deployed by him in his desperate attempt to deceive the jury.
“Darnton regularly visited Mrs Gregory’s home after her son took him under his wing at a young age.
“Darnton would spend time at Mrs Gregory’s bungalow and not only took advantage of Mrs Gregory’s kind nature, he also used his access to her home to meticulously plan his murderous act.
“From his initial arrest and throughout Darnton has protested his innocence and put forward a concoction of lies in an effort to evade justice.
“And so, I want to express my gratitude to the prosecution team who have worked tirelessly to disprove those lies over many months and provided the catalogue of evidence which has ultimately proven his guilt.
“Our thoughts remain very much with Mrs Gregory’s family and friends. We hope this verdict provides them with some form of closure and they can now start moving forward with their lives.”
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