A STORMY relationship between a Bexhill couple who both liked a drink ended tragically when one of them - 42-year-old Debbie Reynolds - died in a fire at their flat.
Following the blaze in Sackville Road just after midnight on Monday, May 23 last year her partner, Mark Gascoigne, 41, now living in Conisbrough, South Yorkshire, was initially arrested on suspicion of murder.
On oath at an inquest in Hastings on Wednesday this week, Mr Gascoigne claimed it was she who had started the fatal fire by spraying butane lighter gas in their bedroom which then ignited.
After a hearing lasting almost four hours, East Sussex coroner Alan Craze recorded a verdict of accidental death, which Home Office pathologist Simon Poole attributed to unemployed chef Ms Reynolds having inhaled fire fumes.
He found no evidence of any physical assault, but her blood was 40 per cent saturated with carbon monoxide and she had minor burns to her hands and neck.
Toxicologist Ian Humphreys found she had 237 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood - nearly three times the legal limit for driving.
The coroner heard Ms Reynolds had been out drinking just hours beforehand. Susannah Constant, landlady of the Town Crier in Town Hall Square; barmaid Erin Taylor and Ms Reynolds’ closest friend, Gillian Roy, of Egerton Road, whom she met at the pub, all attested to her condition that night.
Weeping, Ms Constant said: “Debbie came in very distressed and upset. She said she couldn’t take any more of Mark blaming her for something that was not her fault.”
It seemed that a fortnight earlier she had been out walking their pet Staffordshire terriers when one had attacked a poodle, and this had led to an ongoing row.
Ms Constant said: “She got it out of her system and then cheered up a bit. She was steady on her feet but had slurred speech. She was a regular drinker - though not if she was working - and yes, I had seen her paralytic before.
“I could never believe Mark would hurt her. Both gave as good as they got. It wasn’t a conventional relationship but it seemed to work for them.”
Ms Reynolds went home in a taxi with Erin and Gillian - the latter seeing her to her door as she was by now “a bit wobbly” - but both Erin and cabbie David Relf said they had then subsequently seen her standing at the junction of Sackville Road and Wickham Avenue at around 11.30pm.
Mr Gascoigne said he had been drinking himself and was in bed when Debbie came in. He agreed they were both drinkers but were not alcoholic. Drink fuelled their arguments, but these were not physically violent.
He said: “Five to 10 minutes after I went to bed Debbie came in and started shouting about something. She was obviously annoyed but I turned my back and pulled the quilt over me. I was aware of her pulling stuff out of the wardrobe and next thing there was a fire between the bed and settee.
“I threw the dogs’ water bowl over it, but this just seemed to spread it. I turned round and Deb had the shower hose from the bathroom in her hand, shouting ‘help me’. I said ‘get out, it’s too big’, and I ran out of the flat and upstairs to warn the neighbours by banging on their door.
“When I came back down our door had latched behind me. I tried knocking it in until I couldn’t breath for smoke.”
Mr Gascoigne had then run down into the street, wearing only a blue top and boxer shorts, but no shoes. He said: “I told Deb to get out. I thought she was getting out. I couldn’t get back into the flat and my mobile phone was in there.” He added: “I think Deb must have gone to get her dogs.”
Neighbour Jonathan Matthews, now of Cairngorm Close, Eastbourne, said he had lived next to, but a floor above, the couple’s flat. He had often heard them arguing and said: “They seemed to have a tempestuous relationship.”
He’d been woken by banging minutes after midnight and smelt smoke, so had dialled 999 for the fire brigade and got out. Steven Ward and his partner, Zoe Batchelor, had also heard shouts and banging while Zoe was attending to their baby, Alfie.
They had seen flames outside, apparently coming from Ms Reynold’s kitchen at the rear of the property. Zoe told the inquest: “ I heard Debbie bang on the wall shouting for help. I told her not to worry, the fire brigade was coming.”
The commotion also attracted attention from across the road at The Sportsman public house, from which Mr Gascoigne and Ms Reynolds had been individually barred for previous drunken behaviour.
Landlord Peter Jones said he had seen Mr Gascoigne staggering from his flat’s communal front door in just his underwear. Mr Jones and his partner, Pam, had then witnessed fire engines arriving and Ms Reynolds being carried out into the road.
There, paramedics had spent more than half an hour trying unsuccessfully to revive her - a fact confirmed in a statement by emergency doctor Roley Cunningham. He pronounced her dead at 1.12am.
Statements by several police officers who had raced to the scene were also read out, with PC Sally Blick and PC James Humphrey among those to describe Mr Gascoigne was behaving in a “disorientated” and “obstructive manner”, smelling of alcohol and refusing medical treatment.
He was eventually taken by ambulance to the Conquest Hospital, Hastings, where he was subsequently arrested on suspicion of murder.
In a read statement, Detective Constable Nigel Anthony told how he had received a late night phone call from Mr Gascoigne - who had by then been bailed - which led him to to think that he was emotional, possibly suicidal and had possibly been drinking.
“He told me ‘I need to tell someone what happened. This fire was started deliberately. She [Debbie] set the fire. She sprayed a fluid on the bed and said she was going to teach me a lesson. I didn’t say anything before because I loved her and didn’t want people to think badly of her’ “.
At Wednesday’s inquest Mr Gascoigne repeated his assertion that his partner had been using a butane aerosol and it was that which had started the fire. Asked by the coroner if he thought Ms Reynolds was seeking attention or trying to make a point, Mr Gascoigne said: “Yes.”
He added: “I don’t think she had any intention ... she asked me to put it out.”
Forensic fire investigator Iain Peck said any evidence of butane being used would probably have been consumed by the fire. A dog trained to sniff out accelerants had not reacted when taken over the flat.
Mr Peck said Ms Reynolds body had been found on the floor in the flat’s hallway, and said that she could have succumbed to fumes from the fire very quickly. Polyurethane foam in the furniture would have produced thick black smoke and created a “nasty, toxic atmosphere”.
Arsenic and cyanide were among poisons likely to have been produced, and the fumes had also been shown to have claimed the lives of her dogs.
In reply to the coroner, who asked: “Is this matter still in any way suspicious?”, Detective Chief Inspector Nick May, of Sussex Police’s major crime team, said: “No. There is no criminal responsibility on any party.”
The coroner said he did not believe arson was involved and his verdict of accidental death reflected the lack of any proof that the fire had been deliberately started.
He said Ms Reynold’s death had been “devastating for her family”, particularly her teenage son Aaron who had been away from the flat when the fire occurred, and he offered condolences to all concerned.