Bouncy castle arsonist ‘obsessed’: court

James Balcombe was located living under the alias Paul Johnson in Perth. Picture: Australian Federal Police
James Balcombe was located living under the alias Paul Johnson in Perth. Picture: Australian Federal Police

Obsessed with becoming the “No. 1” party hire business in Melbourne, a man orchestrated the firebombing of his industry rivals.

Despite running a profitable business hiring bouncy castles, James Balcombe, 58, became “completely fixated” on his desire to dominate the industry.

He enlisted an “arsonist for hire” to repeatedly firebomb rivals, causing millions in damage, before turning the flame to his own business in an effort to avoid detection.

His $1.1m insurance claim would go up in smoke as he was arrested days later.

Balcombe returned before the County Court of Victoria on Thursday after pleading guilty to 11 counts of conspiracy to commit arson.

The offending dated back to an almost three-month period from December 2016 to March the following year, but his case was delayed after he fled Victoria in late 2018.

Detectives want your help to locate alleged arsonist James Balcombe. A warrant has been issued for the 54-year-old’s arrest after he failed to appear in court on 10 counts of arson. He is known to visit Mernda and Eltham. Balcombe is described as being caucasian in appearance with long grey hair, glasses and a medium build. Anyone with information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers.
James Balcombe was drinking heavily and consumed by his desire to dominate the party hire industry. Picture: Crime Stoppers.

He was found two years later, having disguised his appearance and living under an alias as the Australian Federal Police investigated fraudulent postage stamps in Perth.

The court was told Balcombe had started his business, Awesome Party Hire, in about 2006 but decided to get involved in the bouncy castle industry a few years later.

He had heard from his brother’s neighbour, Andrew Saliba, how lucrative the business was.

It worked, his business began to grow and for the first time in his life he was able to purchase a Kangaroo Ground property in Melbourne’s northeast to live and expand.

In 2011, Mr Saliba and Balcombe had a falling out, with a series of text messages put before the court showing each accusing the other of “copying” their business.

Mr Saliba’s business, Xtreme Party Hire, would later become the focus of Balcombe’s quest for dominance.

Judge Stewart Bayles said despite Balcombe’s success, his desire to reach No. 1 status in Melbourne would “consume your every waking moment”.

“You became obsessed with outdoing your rivals and dominating the market in Melbourne,” he said.

“Mr Kenny (Balcombe’s lawyer) submitted you completely lost perspective, you were drinking heavily during this time … your thinking became reckless and erratic.”

He was arrested by AFP officers in Perth in August 2020 and extradited to Victoria. Picture: Australian Federal Police
He was arrested by AFP officers in Perth in August 2020 and extradited to Victoria. Picture: Australian Federal Police

In December 2016, Balcombe enlisted two men, Craig Anderson and Peter Smith, to eliminate rivals in Tullamarine, Werribee, Hallam, Warragul and Keysborough.

He offered the men $2000 per address, instructing them to “‘burn the places to the ground”.

Smith backed out after the first two fires, while Anderson was involved in all but one – the perpetrator of which was never identified.

Anderson enlisted a third man, Trevor Ransom, as the driver for the first four fires.

Most of the fires, lit by throwing molotov cocktails at the buildings, failed to do significant damage.

The court was told Balcombe was “not happy” about this, instructing the arsonists to return to two businesses, Mr Saliba’s Xtreme Party Hire and CRP Tarps, a second and third time.

One business, A+ Jumpy Castles in Hoppers Crossing, was completely destroyed, with the damage bill to it and a neighbouring business estimated at about $1.47m.

The owners did not have insurance and, after a failed attempt to resurrect A+ Jumpy Castles, now work casual jobs to make ends meet.

By March 2017, Balcombe feared the spate of fires would be linked to him and instructed Anderson to target Balcombe’s business next.

The fire took hold, destroying his entire shed and contents, with an insurance claim of $1.1m lodged the same day.

Several days later, Anderson, Smith and Ransom were arrested, immediately nominating Balcombe as the “apex of the conspiracy”.

Balcombe was sentenced to serve 11 years imprisonment on the 11 charges and will be eligible for parole in October 2028.

Judge Bayles said Balcombe’s repeated conduct had caused significant loss, suffering and trauma to his victims.

“Your motivation, at one level, may have been to advance your business and financial interests,” he said.

“But that was sought to be achieved through the damage and destruction of businesses, livelihoods and interests of others.”