Published: 10:19, 24 February 2018
A ruthless arsonist who was jailed for starting fires at two Kent hospitals has struck again shortly after his release from prison.
Thomas Ashcroft put the lives of hospital patients at risk by causing evacuations to carry out petty thefts at hospitals, hotels and cafes across England - including at Medway Maritime and the Kent and Canterbury Hospitals in 2012.
He was sentenced to eight years with a four-year extended licence in 2013 for the spate of arson attacks and burglaries.
This isn't Ashcroft's first return to prison, however, as he had been out of jail for just days before starting the string of attacks back in 2012.
At the Kent and Canterbury, he caused more than £70,000 of damage - but escaped with just four £5 notes and some change.
The notorious arsonist helped himself to cash from nearby rooms as staff were busy tackling emergencies.
He then started a fire in a bid to cause a distraction - causing even cancer patients receiving treatment to evacuate the building along with 300 others.
It was more than an hour before the ground and first floors were safe again - therefore delaying treatment to in-need patients.
Just days before, Ashcroft had targeted Medway Martime Hospital where, at the time, 1,500 staff were working when he started a fire in a store cupboard on the second-floor Keats ward.
Fire officers took the decision to evacuate Dickens ward, which is used for admissions and discharges, and one patient was moved from the clinical area for 40 minutes.
More than £10,000 damage was caused at the Gillingham hospital because of Ashcroft's calculated actions.
The heartless thief's selfish acts were all in a bid to fund his drug habit.
The 40-year-old Sheffield man has now been sentenced at Stafford Crown Court to life imprisonment after being found guilty of setting fire to two further institutions.
He will be eligible for parole after seven years and 182 days.
Ashcroft had previously pleaded guilty to committing arson with intent and recklessly endangering life.
The court heard Ashcroft had deliberately set fire to Staffordshire University's Beacon Building on their College Road campus in Stoke-on-Trent on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 7 last year.
At 3.54pm Ashcroft activated the fire alarm after setting fire to toilet paper in the disabled toilets on the first floor.
CCTV then shows him sitting outside after the fire was set and then walking off campus once fire crews arrived.
Next Ashcroft went on to the Royal Stoke University Hospital where he made his way down to the basement floor of the main building that houses 14 live operating theatres and the critical care unit.
The court heard that Ashcroft set light to plastic bagged items that were stored in metal cages.
Having just set the fire, a hospital porter told the court Ashcroft walked past him, saying: "Isn't it warm down here?"
The fire was discovered at 5:58pm by a man on his way to the critical care unit, who told staff to evacuate the building.
Ashcroft activated the fire alarm himself at 6pm and then made his way to the restaurant on the second floor.
His plan was to steal money from the tills, but he was deterred by a member of staff who was still in the building. Ashcroft was last seen leaving the building shortly after.
Following investigation work from officers Ashcroft was tracked down and arrested on Redhill Street in Manchester on Thursday, June 8.
Staffordshire Police's Detective Inspector Dan Ison said: "Ashcroft has a track record as a serial commercial burglar and has adopted the practice of setting off the fire alarm to encourage the evacuation of the building. Once empty he then attempts to steal money from within the building.
"Good work by our officers has stopped him from doing this again. His tactic of setting light to buildings is both reckless and dangerous and could have resulted in the deaths of many people.
"We welcome this sentence and hope it deters others from thinking they can get away with such illegal and hazardous acts."
Rob Barber, Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service's deputy chief fire officer, said: "We welcome this sentence which reflects the seriousness of Ashcroft's actions. The hospital fire put many people's lives at risk and it took considerable time and resources to bring it to a safe conclusion.
"Our fire investigator worked closely with colleagues from Staffordshire Police to support them during their investigation.
"As a service we take arson extremely seriously and we are pleased that justice has been brought against the man responsible for these reckless incidents."
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