Mystery surrounds the reason why a man set light to ten cars parked outside houses in two terraced streets of a town in the early hours of a morning.

Paul Reay used a blow torch-style lighter to ignite registration plates on the cars in his ten-minute fire-setting spree in Crook, County Durham, on Sunday, February 12.

He was today (Friday, May 19) sentenced to seven-and-a-half-years’ imprisonment after admitting ten counts of arson being reckless whether life or property was endangered at a plea hearing at Durham Crown Court, on March 20.

The Northern Echo:

As he is considered to pose a significant risk of committing further offences of potential serious harm to the public he must serve at least two-thirds of the sentence behind bars and he will be subject to four years’ extended licence period when the custodial term expires.

Read more: Police launch arson investigation into Crook car fires

Reay, who had taken drugs and drink the previous night into the early hours of February 12, could not explain why he carried out his arson spree.

The Northern Echo:

Durham Crown Court heard that he had never previously been to Crook and had no hostility with any townsfolk or any of the victims in the case.

When he was arrested, on February 17, he initially denied the offences and told police he had taken “benzos” and been drinking for much of the previous day.

But the court heard he left a trial of damage, not only to the cars he ignited, but to many house fascias, windows and doors, which were damaged by the flames from the adjacent parked cars.

The Northern Echo:

John Hobley, prosecuting, said although not all valuations have been submitted, the damage that has been accounted for so far was put at £49,606, but is likely to rise when further assessments and claims are completed.

Many of the victims have been left out of pocket and in some cases without transport for some periods since the night of the incident.

But the court heard it also left victims and their families suffering psychological harm and one family has moved from their home as a result.

Several of the victims, who had mostly been woken from their sleep by the sound of the blazing cars, ran from their properties in Milburn and neighbouring Wilson streets in terror fearing explosions if the fuel ignited in their vehicles.

Mr Hobley said following the viewing of CCTV in the area Reay was identified and the lighter used to start the fires was found dumped behind a wheelie-bin.

The court was told the 39-year-old defendant, of Chepstow Street, Millfield, in Sunderland, has mostly burglary offences on his record.

Read more: Ten cars destroyed in suspected arson attack on Milburn Street, Crook

Chris Knox, in mitigation, said the author of the pre-sentence probation report was able to confirm the defendant has no “fixation” with fire or pattern of past arson offences.

“It seems to have been an incident sparked, at least, by drink and/or drugs to which he is sadly susceptible.

“The probation officer preparing the report described him as a risk by impulsive behaviour.

“As an adult nearly all his offences are burglary with little history of violence.”

Mr Knox said the defendant had been trying to curb his drinking and drug taking, but “sadly, had fallen off his previous good intentions” that night.

“He had maintained good progress, being off drink and drugs, but this night, unfortunately, saw an excess of both and the risk is clear.

“He’s never been to Crook before and he has not the slightest hostility in any way to any of the people who live there or any of the people whose cars were badly damaged.”

Mr Knox said, as a result, the victims could, “sleep happily in their beds, knowing that no-one has it in for them”.

Judge Jo Kidd told Reay: “For reasons you have not explained and for which there is no obvious objective explanation, you targeted two streets in a residential area of Crook.

“There’s no suggestion you were specifically targeting any individual, but I have seen a picture of the lighter used, and it’s not necessarily a lighter used to light a cigarette.”

The judge said having viewed the cctv footage available Reay could be seen hiding behind vehicles and walls going from car to car.

“What is interesting to note is you are able to walk without staggering.”

She said: “So I’m left in a position of not being able to understand your thought processes that night.

“Equally, the number of vehicles targeted suggested it was a deliberate act.”

Judge Kidd said it would have been obvious of the danger posed given the proximity of houses to the cars targeted.

“Because of the sheer number of vehicles targeted and the incremental risk caused if each had exploded with the ferocity of some, then I take the view the starting point here is ten years.”

But she deducted 25-per cent of the sentence to account for the defendant’s admissions at the plea hearing.

Judge Kidd added that in the light of the reality of Reay’s financial position and sentence she would make no compensation order in the case.

Read next:

Man arrested on suspicion of setting fire to cars in Crook is bailed

Crook car fires: Paul Reay appears in court on arson charge

Sunderland man admits ten charges of arson over Crook car fires

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Speaking after today’s hearing, Detective Sergeant Claire Callaghan, of South Durham CID, said: "This was a deliberate and horrific incident that could easily have ended in tragedy. 

“Officers worked tirelessly to gather the evidence, so it is great to see Reay had no choice but to plead guilty and justice for the residents has been served.

“I would like to thank the members of the public who provided vital information on this case which ultimately helped us bring all ten charges.”