A remorseful Co Antrim teenager who took a stolen fire engine on a £160,000 drunken joyride of destruction with a pensioner, has been freed on probation.
Freeing Ross Clarke on the two-year order on condition he also completes 100 hours community service, Judge Desmond Marrinan said but for his “toxic and totally inappropriate relationship” with the 68-year-old he would never have been involved let alone “could have dreamt up the escapade”.
The Antrim Crown Court judge said while the now 20-year-old was not under the control of the pensioner he was “certainly under his malign Svengali and baleful influence”.
Judge Marrinan said although his crimes had crossed the custodial threshold, given Clarke’s highly exceptional and difficult background, and a mentality that made him a vulnerable person easily led and manipulated, he was prepared to take the exceptional step in freeing him on the combination order.
However, the judge also told Clarke given the “multiple collisions and near misses” he had, it was “by the grace of God” that he was “not looking at a tragedy, or series of tragedies if things had gone wrong”.
Clarke, who was also banned from driving for five years, had always blamed the pensioner, claiming he made him take the engine from Larne fire station in the early hours of March 5 last year after he’d drank a “crate of beer”.
In all Clarke, originally of Fairway in Larne, but now with an address in Rathcoole, Newtownabbey, admitted a total of 20 charges, including the aggravated taking of the engine and damaging the Agnew Street station.
His other crimes included criminal damage to six houses, a shop doorway, nine vehicles, including the fire engine, attempted burglary, dangerous driving, driving without insurance, and failing either to report, stop, or remain at the scene of an accident.
Last week prosecutor Michael Chambers outlined how Clarke and the pensioner, who escaped prosecution when declared mentally unfit, had initially attempted to take a lorry from a bus yard, but gave up after failing to start the vehicle.
Mr Chambers said the pair then “jemmied” their way into the fire depot. Two things were in Clarke’s favour – the keys were in the ignition, and the vehicle was an automatic allowing him to drive.
He added Clarke claimed he drank “a crate of beer” that evening, but was never breathalysed, although it was accepted he had drink taken.
While Clarke also claimed the pensioner threatened him, the old man in turn claimed it was Clarke’s idea.
His attempts at reversing the fire appliance back into the station ended with a repair bill of over £80,000 to both engine and depot wall.
Mr Chambers said Clarke’s drive of destruction ended when he careered into a lorry and seven parked cars, one of which was flipped on to its roof, and smashed along six terraced homes in the town’s Glenarm Road.
Defence QC Jackie Orr said that while a remorseful Clarke, who has a “severe learning disability”, had always made the case that the pensioner was to blame, it did not amount to a legal defence of duress.
Ms Orr said that psychiatric, psychological and probation experts all agreed that Clarke was a “vulnerable adult easily manipulated by others”.
She also revealed that since that “night of sheer madness”, Clarke had earned a Duke of Edinburgh gold award, and was “someone who has changed his life completely”.