Annette Hewins: Mum's life torn apart for killing three

It was an innocent trip to the petrol station for an aunt and her niece that saw them both jailed over three deaths.

After a fire killed a mother and her children, Annette Hewins, 31, and Donna Clarke, 27, were wrongly blamed.

Annette, from Merthyr Tydfil, had her baby torn away from her when she was jailed, and turned to heroin to cope.

Speaking on BBC Wales' Wrongly Accused: The Annette Hewins Story podcast, her daughter Nicole Jacob, 31, said it "ripped our family apart".

"Now as an adult, I want answers," she said.

Annette Hewins, 51, was jailed in 1997 after being convicted of arson with intent to endanger life at Cardiff Crown Court.

It was following a fire that caused the deaths of Diane Jones and her two daughters on Merthyr Tydfil's Gurnos estate in 1995.

Her conviction was quashed in 1999 after she had served two and a half years of a 13-year sentence

She died in February 2017 less than 24 hours after being detained in a mental health unit, after struggling to cope with the miscarriage of justice.

What happened on the night of the fire?

"A trip to the garage would alter the course of our lives," said Nicole, describing the night of the fire.

"When my mum and Donna arrived at the petrol station, Donna went into the shop to buy electricity tokens - mum filled the car with petrol.

"Then my mum dropped off Donna at the Gurnos and returned home to us.

"But back at the Gurnos the night was just getting started."

Annette, nathan and Nicole
Annette, Nathan and baby Nicole taken before she was charged with murder

Denise Sullivan then met Donna to go to a party.

Ms Sullivan, now 52, had been released on remand for shoplifting, and Donna was excited to have her best friend back.

She said there was a party culture in the community and that night they used drugs "acid and mushrooms", while Donna also took amphetamines.

"She was really in high spirits," Ms Sullivan said.

"Nothing untoward, just glad to be out and back together."

However, the night took a shocking turn when they noticed the sky outside was full of smoke.

The party-goers rushed to the blazing house, and realised it was their friend Diane's - who had a two-year-old, Shauna, and 13-month-old daughter, Sarah-Jane.

How did the community react?

Their deaths in the blaze hit the community hard and hundreds of people lined the streets for the funeral.

Shaun Hibbot, the children's dad, was in prison and released to lay his children and partner to rest.

Originally, the community believed the fire was caused by an electrical accident - but the police soon launched a triple murder investigation after petrol was found on the inside carpet of Diane's house.

Police found a washing-up liquid bottle and coke can near the house which contained petrol - a finger print was discovered, but after fingerprinting 700 families it was found to be an innocent eight-year-old boy.

At the time, it was reported 3,500 people were interviewed and 400 calls were made to the incident room in relation to the case - but police still believed someone was shielding the killer.

What did witnesses see?

"More than one witness recalled seeing three men at Shaun and Diane's house that evening," Nicole said.

One statement to police described them getting into a car at the front of the house and driving away, another person said they had seen these men at the house before.

Nicole added: "Did they ever find that car? Did they know whose car it was, was it ruled out as being linked to the fire - what conclusion did they draw?"

What were the possible motives?

Ms Sullivan said Shaun Hibbot was "one of the main suppliers" of drugs on the estate and a lot of people did not like him and were jealous of how well he was doing from dealing.

She said there were times he was beaten up with hammers by rivals.

But it was not drugs that led police to Annette.

Nicole in the studio
Annette wanted to write a book about the injustice she faced, but her mental health prevented her - now her daughter Nicole is taking up her baton

A senior officer appealed for "rumours" or "innuendos" which may lead them to the killer - which was when somebody alleged an affair between Donna and Shaun.

Ms Sullivan said it was true but the affair had ended months before.

Donna and Diane had arguments about the affair, she said, "but that didn't mean Donna killed her".

Police arrested Donna and Ms Sullivan as suspects, then two days later they brought Annette into the station after hearing she took her niece to the garage that night.

The police believed Annette and Donna had siphoned petrol from the car and used it to start the fire.

She was released without charge, but four months later, Annette received a phone call from Donna's solicitor saying the police were going to charge her.

Bob Woffinden, a freelance journalist who covered the case, said: "The police will get a little bit of a snippet of information or a particular innuendo and will then hare off down the wrong road.

"We do know there were lots of other grade one suspects involved in this case and there were lots of other avenues I think that were much more persuasive - and the police should have been directing their enquiries along totally different avenues right from the beginning."

Who was Annette Hewins?

Annette had grown up on the Gurnos housing estate, but moved away with her husband Phillip.

They had three children and lived a quiet life, while her niece Donna remained on the estate and lived a more "chaotic" life, said Nicole.

"My mum had never taken hard drugs before she was sent to prison, she turned to heroin to deal with the mental anguish of being wrongly convicted and separated from her family," Nicole said.

"Given the harsh way her world had been unjustly destroyed, could you blame her?"

Annette said in a recording from prison: "When they took my baby from me, that was the worst - they wouldn't do to a dog what they did to me - it was so cruel."

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Where will Nicole's search for the truth lead her, will she get answers from the police?

Listen to the next episode on 28 March.