Man found not guilty of house-fire murder

·3-min read

Cameron Johnston was so scared of a stranger who trashed his home, smashing all the windows, he refused to leave when the house was torched.

Despite his son imploring him to come out, Mr Johnston told the triple-zero emergency operator: "No, I can't go outside, he'll kill us. He's mad".

"The whole house is on fire. He's chucking bombs, he's chucking them in the bedroom now".

His 18-year-old son was heard to scream "Dad, Dad, Dad" before the stranger, Harley Thompson, yelled "burn, c*** burn" and laughed.

Thompson was charged with murdering Mr Johnston, 49, who died in the fire in his Bomaderry home on the NSW south coast on July 31, 2020.

The now 27-year-old pleaded not guilty on the grounds of mental health impairment.

After a judge-alone trial in the NSW Supreme Court sitting in Nowra, Justice Michael Walton on Friday delivered a special verdict finding the "act proven but the accused not criminally responsible".

Thompson lived in the same street as Mr Johnston, whom he did not know, and went to his home three times over a period of 90 minutes on the night of July 31.

On the first two occasions, Thompson was heard to scream out "pedophile" and other abuse while witnesses heard banging and smashing sounds.

Mr Johnston rang emergency services asking the operator: "Can you get them (police) here quick, 'cause he's scary?".

Police arrived and saw the house windows and the car windscreen all smashed, while Mr Johnston said he did not know the identity of the offender.

He said he had been receiving texted threats on his phone while "there were people in the street who were alleging he was a pedophile".

Police attended a second time after neighbours heard the same male voice screaming abuse and the sound of glass smashing followed by more threats including "I'm going to kill you".

In his call to emergency services, Mr Johnston said: "The bloke's back smashing my car up again" and "he's going to smash through the front door any second".

On the third occasion, he requested police and the fire brigade saying the man had returned and "chucked petrol through the window".

He said he wouldn't leave the house because he believed the man would kill him, and told the operator he was trying to get buckets of water to put the fire out.

Thompson originally told police he did not light the fire and downplayed the amount of drugs and alcohol he had consumed.

He later said he had been luring Mr Johnston outside to fight when he set the house alight.

The judge accepted the opinions of two eminent forensic psychiatrists, noting their acknowledgement and responses to suggested possibilities including that Thompson had feigned symptoms of mental illness.

"The clinical records from years before the alleged offence, indicated that at least some clinicians suspected the accused was psychotic," he said.

He found Thompson has a psychotic disorder diagnosed as schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder or depression with psychotic features.

"This has resulted in persecutory or referential delusions or auditory hallucinations," he said.

He was motivated by a belief, apparently based on information and gossip provided by his neighbours, that Mr Johnston was a pedophile.

One psychiatrist said Thompson's opinion was delusional in the intensity in which the belief was held, noting it took flimsy evidence for him to determine with certainty that it was true.

Thompson will now be detained and supervised by the Mental Health Tribunal.

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