The Scotsman

Wed 9 Oct 2002

Mother guilty of killing pregnant neighbour

JOHN ROBERTSON LAW CORRESPONDENT

The Scotsman

A MOTHER-OF-THREE has been convicted of murdering a pregnant woman by setting fire to her home after a "trivial" feud between neighbours got out of control.

Gail Ross, 24, and her unborn baby died in the blaze, started by Hilda Robertson, as she frantically tried to reach her toddler son in his bedroom.

Ms Ross might have survived if her first instinct had not been to protect two-year-old son, Finn. As she opened the door to her bedroom, she was immediately overcome by dense smoke and searing heat.

She was found dead, but Finn was rescued from his room across the landing and firemen believe he lived because the door had remained closed, protecting him from the worst of the fumes.

Robertson, 35, denied starting the fire, while acting with another person, at Craigpark Avenue, Ratho, near Edinburgh, on 12 December last year. But she was found guilty of murdering Ms Ross, who was 24 weeksí pregnant, by a juryís unanimous verdict.

The judge, Lady Smith, will announce later this month the minimum term that Robertson must serve of a life sentence.

Relatives of the dead woman spoke of their relief at the verdict.

George Herkes, 35, Ms Rossís brother-in-law, said: "We are happy that we have got justice, but it will not bring Gail back. Letís hope she [Robertson] gets a lot of years to reflect on the evil that she has done.

"Our lives will never be the same again."

Ms Rossís parents, David and Marlyn, are looking after Finn.

Mrs Ross, 48, said: "He knows from pictures who Gail is and a video we have of her.

"He does not remember much about that night, but there was a smoke alarm in the house and he is obsessed with them now. If a smoke alarm goes off, he is petrified," she added.

Mr Ross, 51, said the feud had started over trivial issues, and added: "It was just over nothing - neighbours falling out".

The trial took place last month at the High Court in Edinburgh but a temporary reporting ban was imposed for legal reasons. The ban expired yesterday.

The court heard Ms Ross and Robertson, who has three children aged ten, nine and five, argued last summer.

Susan Taylor, 37, of Main Street, Ratho, said she had been Robertsonís best friend and understood the dispute began when Robertsonís sister embraced a man with Ms Ross in a pub. Ms Ross became annoyed, but Robertson had told her not to be jealous.

Later, there had been two incidents at Robertsonís home. In the first, James Harkins, Ms Rossís partner, had been found in the house and Robertson had feared he was going to attack her. Then, in the early hours of 10 December, a fire had been discovered by the front door. Robertsonís uncle, John Wakely, 62, of North Street, Ratho, said she told him on the evening of 11 December: "I will get the bastards back, one way or another ... you better believe it. If she wants to play with fire, thatís OK with me. See how she likes it Ö itís going to get torched."

Mr Wakely said Robertson left his home about 1:30am on 12 December, saying she had "things to do and people to see".

Just after 2am, Ms Ross made a desperate 999 call to the emergency services. A recording of the call was played to the jury who could clearly hear Ms Ross scream: "Oh my God Ö my babyí.

Firefighters found her body in her upstairs bedroom. The door had been opened, allowing thick smoke into the room.

The smoke made it impossible for the firemen to see and they were forced to search the house by touch and heard coughing when the door to Finnís room was opened. He was plucked from his cot and carried to safety.

Half an hour later, Robertson phoned her friend, Susan Taylor. She said: "I have just gone up and set Gail Rossís house on fire Ö they have done it to me, so I have done it to them."

She said she had put burning paper through the letter box.

Ms Taylor told the jury that later in the morning, she heard reports of a woman dying in a house fire in Ratho.

She said she contacted Robertson, who exclaimed: "Oh my God, you are f****** joking. I have to find a safe place for the bairns because I am away for a long time."