A man who has spent six months in custody accused of starting a massive fire in the centre of Maidstone has left court after his trial collapsed.
After fresh evidence was revealed the prosecution decided they could no longer proceed against Adam Stajer and not guilty verdicts were entered on arson charges.
The 21-year-old Slovakian, of Upper Stone Street, Maidstone, paused briefly and smiled on the steps of Maidstone Crown Court, as he left with his family.
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Earlier this afternoon he had remained in the cells while an interpreter was found to explain the dramatic new developments. He was arrested on June 11 and has remained in custody until today.
Mr Stajer was alleged to have set fire to rubbish outside The Works book store in Week Street as he made his way home from a nearby gambling shop in the early hours of June 8.
Video: Adam Stajer was found not guilty. Annabel Rusbridge-Thomas reports.
The blaze spread to other buildings and caused £5 million of damage and major disruption to the town centre.
Mr Stajer, who worked at the Shamrat Indian restaurant in Lower Stone Street, denied arson with intent to endanger life and an alternative charge of arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered.
Maidstone Crown Court heard the new evidence emerged after a witness was traced on Tuesday.
The jury of seven women and five men had been shown CCTV footage of a flickering light - described as an explosion by a defence expert - around the book shop an hour before the blaze took hold at about 2am.
Fire investigator Emma Wilson originally concluded that the earlier incident played no part in the fire starting.
But she revised her opinion after Arkadiusz Kominsky was traced by police and he revealed he had seen flames coming from rubbish in the area at just after 1am.
Mr Kominsky had been on his way to clean business premises in the area when he saw the fire. He later went to visit his home country of Poland and could not be traced.
He told police he did not report the fire because he had heard sirens from emergency services dealing with a series of smaller fires in the town that night and assumed they were on their way to Week Street.
Prosecutor Ryan Richter said in an explanation to jurors: “What he has said now is very significant, because I have opened the case to you that the earlier event we thought at the time was not the fire.”
Miss Wilson, he said, had considered Mr Kominsky’s statement and she could now think of reasons why smoke might not have been seen on CCTV footage at that point.
“It means she is not able to rule out a smouldering cigarette outside The Works at the earlier time,” said Mr Richter.
“I said you could only convict if you can be sure on the evidence presented. As you can see we can never make you sure.
“This is an entirely different scenario to the one we have presented. The police will have to do further work.
“This is an usual development. It has developed in a way which is entirely unexpected and, I can assure you, very unusual.” — Judge Julian Smith
“It is not right to proceed any further against Mr Stajer and the Crown offers no further evidence against him.”
Mr Richter had told the jury at the start of the trial two-and-half weeks ago: ““It is the prosecution case, as he passed those boxes of rubbish, Mr Stajer for whatever reason - boredom, sheer devilment - flicked a light at those boxes of rubbish for a few seconds.
“That set them on fire. He walked off. The fire very quickly developed, taking hold of the rubbish. In a matter of minutes it spread through the seals of the shop into the shop itself."
Judge Julian Smith said of the decision to stop the prosecution: “This is an usual development. It has developed in a way which is entirely unexpected and, I can assure you, very unusual.”
He told jurors: “You are treated to some extent like mushrooms and kept in the dark.
“Because I knew this had developed I knew the prosecution would not continue with the case as they were presenting it and we were likely to hit the buffers in one way or another.”
The judge said Mr Kominsky had been an unidentified man who walked past Accessorize in Week Street at 1.08am.
The police traced Mr Kominsky earlier this week after discovering he always cleaned certain business premises in the town at that time.
He gave a detailed account of seeing “burning flames” 1.2 to 1.5 metres high from black sacks up against the glass.
“He didn’t know a lot about what was going on,” said the judge. “He gave an account of hearing sirens and thought it was going to be dealt with.
“He did his job and came out at 6am. That was reviewed and considered by the expert. The conclusions she reaches in relation to this are completely different from the ones the prosecution relied on.
“In those circumstances it is a different case and issue. Her opinion has substantially changed. If I had let them carry on what case would there have been to answer?”
Judge Smith told Mr Stajer through an interpreter: “Verdicts of not guilty are entered against your name. You are discharged from the court.”