A student who murdered his step-grandmother in a house fire before confessing in a game of Truth or Dare has been jailed for life.
Tiernan Darnton, 21, killed Mary Gregory, 94, by using a lighter to set a curtain on fire on at an address in Heysham, Lancashire in May 2018.
The pensioner was discovered under a table in the conservatory of her smoke-logged bungalow on Levens Drive – and her death was initially ruled an accident.
A probe by the local fire service concluded the most probable cause was a dropped or carelessly discarded cigarette and ruled out any third-party involvement.
This then led to a coroner recording a verdict of an accidental death three years ago.
But police reopened the case in May 2019 following comments made by Darnton during a counselling session in which he said he killed Mrs. Gregory, his stepfather’s mother.
During the inquiry it emerged that the killer had made a similar confession several weeks after his relative’s death, during a game of Truth or Dare with two friends in which he revealed his “darkest secret”.
He told the pair: “I have a secret I haven’t told anyone. I may have killed someone.”
When pressed, he said he started the blaze because he did not want Mrs. Gregory, formerly from Nuneaton, Warwickshire, to suffer any longer from dementia, Preston crown court heard.
Darnton’s friends did not believe him and he persuaded them to keep quiet, but he told a counsellor in May 2019 about a friend “who could send me to prison cos of what he knows”.
He added that he had felt “powerful” at an event involving a person who had died – thought to be Mrs. Gregory’s funeral – as he “knew what had happened and everyone else in the room didn’t”.
The female counsellor ended the session by saying to him “I’m not really clear what you’re saying but I think you’re trying to tell me you’ve killed someone”, to which Darnton mouthed “Yes”.
A week later he told the counsellor and his stepfather, Chris Gregory, 66, that he had started the fire and the matter was later passed to the police by the counsellor, the court was told.
Darnton was jailed for life with a minimum term of 15 years on Friday.
Sentencing Darnton to life, Mrs. Justice Yip told him: “Murder had been on your mind for some time. On your own evidence, you were fascinated by serial killers and their crimes. You had dark thoughts.
“Internet searches which you made before and after you killed Mrs Gregory paint a worrying picture.
“Your opportunity to act on your dark thoughts came when your stepfather was away. In the early hours of 28 May 2018, you went to Mrs Gregory’s home and deliberately started a fire in one of the bedrooms.”
The judge went on: “It is hard to imagine the horror Mrs Gregory must have felt when she realised her house was on fire and was filling with smoke.
“Neighbours heard her screams. Despite her frailty, she tried to get out, but she had been trapped. The fire service found her near to the conservatory doors, where you had blocked her exit.
“Her final days were spent in hospital. Quite understandably, her condition in those days continues to haunt those who loved her. The manner of her death was particularly cruel.”
Darnton, a former student at Kendal College and Lancaster & Morecambe College, was arrested at his family home in Combermere Road, Heysham, in May 2019.
Examination of his mobile phone and laptop found internet searches made after the fire including “I’m a murderer”, “I’m a monster and I’m going to hell”, “I want to cause evil” and “Urge to kill again”.
A month before the fatal blaze – when Darnton was 17 – he also searched “Under 18 murder”.
Giving evidence at his trial, Darnton said the case was “all a big misunderstanding” and his confessions were false.
He said he only wanted to impress his “edgy” friends in the Truth or Dare game and felt he had to say something believable, although he knew it was “messed up”.