Telford victim's anguish over killer's appeal snub
A pensioner who saw his wife and two daughters killed in a deliberate house fire has hit out at Government justice chiefs – after they failed to tell him their killer was bidding to cut his jail term.
George Lowe said he only found out Azhar Mehmood had applied for an early prison release when he walked into his local pub and the landlord showed him the front page of the Shropshire Star.
The 69-year-old was the only adult survivor of a huge blaze which ripped through the family home in Telford in the early hours of the morning in the early hours of August 5, 2000.
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Justice Minister Chris Grayling said he was "very sorry" the family had not been informed and added that something had "clearly gone wrong".
But Mr Lowe said something needed to be done to make sure it did not happen again.
Mehmood was jailed for life in October 2001 after he was convicted of murdering his girlfriend Lucy Lowe, 16, her sister Sarah, 17, and her mother Eileen, 49, in Telford.
All three victims died in the blaze in Halifax Drive, Leegomery, after Mehmood, formerly of Manor Road, Hadley, used petrol to spark a fire.
He was also convicted of the attempted murder of Mr Lowe, who escaped the fire by climbing out of a bedroom window.
Mehmood was jailed for life and ordered to serve a minimum of 18 years – but last week top judges at London's Royal Courts of Justice threw out an appeal to cut his sentence. He will not be eligible to apply for parole until 2019 at the earliest.
Mr Lowe, who now lives in Wellington, said: "We knew absolutely nothing about the appeal.
"I drink in The Station pub in Wellington and the first I knew of it was when I went in there and the landlord showed me the paper and asked me if I had seen it.
"I had tears in my eyes, it brought it all flooding back."
The fire was started with petrol by Azhar Mehmood, the then 26-year-old boyfriend of Mr Lowe's teenage daughter, Lucy.
The 16-year-old had told her family earlier that day she was pregnant with the couple's second child.
They already had a 15-month-old baby, who was found wrapped in a blanket underneath an apple tree in the back garden while the fire was raging.
She is now a teenager and in voluntary foster care.
Mr Lowe said there had been no inkling of any problems between the couple – and they were even all planning to go away on a caravanning family holiday the following week, including taxi driver Mehmood.
"I just want to know why," a visibly upset Mr Lowe said.
"He never told us and we will probably never know. But I just want to know why. He took the lives of my children and my wife just like that.
"I often think what they would be doing now. The pain never goes away."
The house was completely gutted in the blaze. The housing association offered to repair it so Mr Lowe could move back in – but he never set foot back inside and instead opted to move back home with his mother in Wellington.
"I couldn't go back there," he said.
"It never leaves you. I couldn't watch London's Burning any more after it happened.
"I wake up at 2am nearly every morning, which is around the time it happened.
"Every time you hear of a similar thing happening on the news it brings it all back to you. It never goes away."
It was a difficult time for Mr Lowe, who insists the only reason he was able to hold it all together was with the support of his close-knit family and friends.
His father Bill died five months before the fire, and he lost two other close family members at around the same time as the tragic fire.
His sister, Edna Jackson, said: "It was a devastating time for all of us.
"It brings you closer together. We have always been close anyway but we really had to rally round and we were of course very concerned about George.
"He lost everything he had in a heartbeat."
Mr Lowe said the family had been out for a night at the pub on the evening of the fire, and had all retired to bed when he was woken at around 2am.
He was in one bedroom and his wife and daughters were in another across the landing. "I got up and went to open the door and then it hit me – the smoke and flames," he said. "It was like being in a furnace. It was horrendous. There was no way I could have walked out into that. I managed to escape through the window and went and woke my neighbour Jane, who must have phoned the emergency services.
"We found the baby under the apple tree all wrapped up. He obviously didn't want her to die."
The news filtered through to the rest of the family.
Mr Lowe's brother Eddie, who runs the Plough pub in Wellington, found out the following morning there had been a fire at his brother's home.
"I raced round there and the police told me there had been three survivors – they wouldn't tell me who," he said.
"So I shot up there and I saw George, covered in smoke and soot and wearing just his trousers, the baby, and him (Mehmood). Fully clothed. With a coat on."
Mehmood told the police initially he had also been in the house when the fire started but had managed to escape.
Mehmood, formerly of Manor Road, Hadley, Telford, was convicted by a jury of three counts of murder and one of attempted murder following a trial in 2001.
He had denied any part in the blaze but was given a life sentence and ordered to serve a minimum jail term of 18 years.
To the anger of the family, Mehmood's case came back into the spotlight last week as his legal team at London's Royal Courts of Justice argued that he deserved a cut in his minimum term.
A sentence cut could only be envisaged where a lifer's progress was "outstanding, and the judge said: "The evidence falls a very long way short of satisfying those requirements".
The ruling means that Mehmood will not be considered for release on parole until October 2019.
Justice minister promises action to inform the victims of serious crime
Justice Minister Chris Grayling has pledged the Conservatives would look to introduce a new law to help victims of serious crime – if they win next year's General Election.
He came under attack after the family of three women murdered in Telford in a deliberate house fire 14 years ago complained they had not been told the killer was bidding to cut his sentence and secure an early release from prison.
Azhar Mehmood argued he had made "exceptional progress" while behind bars – but top judges ruled he must still serve the minimum 18-year jail term imposed in 2001.
Mr Grayling, who was in Telford to meet the parents of murdered teenager Georgia Williams, said it was not the first time the issue had been raised with him.
"I am very sorry that they were not informed," he added. "There's a victim contact scheme and something has clearly gone wrong.
"From a justice point of view I very much regret that something like this could happen without the family knowing.
"I would want them to be aware that he was being considered for a change of status and to give them warning of something that's happening.
"The question of appeal is a very legitimate one and it is completely understandable that the family would want it highlighted if that was going to happen.
"It's something we need to look at.
"The next Conservative Government will introduce something called Victim's Law which will make sure victims are kept informed about their cases and will be able to give victim impact statements.
"I don't know the reason why this has happened in this case but of course I am really sorry and we need to look at that.
"It could be that they weren't registered with the victim contact centre or that something has gone wrong with the process."
Mr Grayling said European human rights laws needed to change so that the rights of victims were put before criminals.
"I realise it does often feel like the rights of the offenders are of higher importance than the rights of the family – and that's something that needs to change," he said.
Mr Grayling said he was a "strong advocate" of the full life sentence.
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