Fire Practice For Savoy Arsonist

The Sun Herald

Saturday April 24, 1993

By MARTIN WARNEMINDE

AUSTRALIA'S most dangerous firebug - with six arson convictions and responsible for the deaths of 15 people - has won promotion to deputy captain in a NSW country bush fire brigade.

Reginald John Lyttle, 41, is still serving a life sentence for mass murder after setting ablaze the five-storey Savoy Hotel in Kings Cross on Christmas Day 1975.

He and 25 to 30 other prisoners man a fire tender based at the low-security St Heliers prison farm, which holds about 250 men, near Muswellbrook, north of Newcastle.

The fire control officer with Muswellbrook Shire Council, Fred Apthorpe, told The Sun-Herald last week he had heard rumours Lyttle was an arsonist "but this is the first time I have had it confirmed".

The brigade was not given information on the criminal records of inmates and did not ask for it, he said. "We assume that if they are allowed to undertake work like this then they mustn't be too bad."

The prison unit, known officially as "Headquarters Brigade" to avoid any stigma from naming it after the prison, is an old farm truck repaired by inmates. The council and the Department of Bushfire Services paid to have it fitted with a water tank, pump, two-way radio, red lights and siren.

Former St Heliers governor Ken Middlebrook, now a chief superintendent and regional commander in charge of seven country prisons, started the unit about two years ago. He said that Lyttle, because of his record, took part in brigade operations only under "constant, very close supervision".

Like the 430 other members of the 18 brigades in the 36,00sq/km shire, the prison firefighters were volunteers. When not fighting fires, they did fire hazard reduction work, Mr Apthorpe said. This involved burn-offs. They also helped Pacific Power burn off around local electricity installations.

Lyttle brings experience to this aspect of the job. In July 1967, aged 15, he set fire to grass near a BP chemical depot in the Newcastle suburb of Tighes Hill.

He also tried to burn down the local market by setting ablaze a pile of fruit cartons and, in another failed arson attempt, set fire to grass beside a wool store in the Newcastle suburb of Wickham.

Lyttle's career as an arsonist started at the age of nine or 10. A couple at Toronto, near Newcastle, who were acting as his foster parents, returned him to an orphanage after he set fire to their garage.

His parents left him in the orphanage from the ages of four to 15. Back home with them in Tighes Hill in April 1967, three months before the BP fire, he and a friend started a fire in a neighbour's garden.

Lyttle was then arrested for trying to burn down another house by dousing the front door with motor mower fuel. After telephoning the fire brigade he helped throw buckets of water on the blaze.

He was arrested but set free on 12 months' probation.

On December 8, 1975, a few weeks before the Savoy Hotel fire, Lyttle was sacked from the kitchens of City Tattersalls Club in Pitt Street, Sydney. In revenge, he set fire to a billiard table.

Then came the Savoy holocaust. Lyttle, who was staying there, got upset after his homosexual boyfriend failed to turn up for a Christmas tryst. He set fire to a bundle of newspapers in the hotel basement and went to bed. He was rescued by firemen but 15 other guests were killed and 22 injured.

In the two months before Lyttle was arrested he organised a citizens'committee to demand greater fire precautions in the old buildings of Kings Cross. He also booked into the People's Palace at Newcastle for a night. The porter, alerted by a motorist, put out three fires in the building.

A couple of weeks later Lyttle decided - after another homosexual rejection- to commit suicide by self-immolation. He set fire to the mattress of a bed in his seedy Kings Cross boarding house.

Police investigating the Savoy fire, already suspicious, because of his arson record, arrested him after he kept yelling out "Savoy Hotel ... Savoy Hotel" as he was being placed in an ambulance.

He told police he used arson to relieve tension when he was upset.

Lyttle was not allowed to go on prison firefighting missions but did take part in burn-offs, Chief Superintendent Middlebrook said. He was always given a job close to the prison officer in charge.

Supt Middlebrook said he was aware of a need to be very sensitive to the public reaction to such a situation and to protect the community.

But he said it would be unfair not to allow Lyttle to take part in fire brigade activities. The program helped inmates prepare for release.

But he had written to the new St Heliers governor, Alan Chisholm, to emphasise the need for the restrictions on Lyttle and had vetoed the arsonist's recent election as secretary of the local brigade.

© 1993 The Sun Herald

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