Deadly lighter prank not first, says Crown

An investment banker who set fire to a colleague at a staff Christmas party had tried earlier to light the deceased's fancy dress grass skirt, a judge in the High Court was told yesterday.

Matthew Schofield, aged 27, earlier admitted the manslaughter of 24-year-old Gareth MacFadyen, who died after the Merrill Lynch end-of year function at Quay West Towers in Albert St, Auckland, last December 15.

He has also admitted injuring 29-year-old colleague Angela Offwood, who was severely burned in the incident.

The Crown Solicitor for Auckland, Simon Moore, told Justice Rod Hansen that while Schofield had admitted the charges, the defence disputed some of the Crown's version of what had happened.

Mr Moore, appearing with Simon Mount, said it was an aggravating feature that before the fatal incident in a cubicle in the men's toilet, there were other incidents where Schofield tried to put a lighter to people's clothes.

Schofield is due to be sentenced by Justice Hansen next week.

Mr Moore said that at the end of the evening, which had a Hawaiian theme, Angela Offwood accepted Mr MacFadyen's invitation to use the men's toilets, as the women's were occupied.

She was surprised that he followed her into the cubicle.

They joked about their situation and discussed the future of Merrill Lynch, where redundancies had been announced.

Mr Moore said the pair stayed clothed throughout, although there was hilarity and speculation among other male partygoers about what was occurring.

Mr Moore said that Schofield produced a cigarette lighter and lit Mr MacFadyen's grass skirt from under the cubicle.

He allegedly said to laughing colleagues words to the effect "I've lit his skirt."

Within a few moments the skirt was fully on fire. Mr MacFadyen was black from charring and his head was described as "glowing like a cigarette." His injuries were unsurvivable.

Angela Offwood has since had six plastic surgery operations and required 800 staples to secure skin grafts.

Mr Moore told the judge the Crown contended that Schofield had earlier tried to set partygoer Tony Connolly's hat ablaze.

He also set fire to a strand of the grass skirt worn by partygoer Matthew Rose, but it ignited briefly, smouldered and went out.

Mr Moore said it was also contended that Schofield set fire to Mr MacFadyen's skirt earlier.

Christine Smith, who works at Quay West, told the judge it was extinguished and she told the group to stop being bloody idiots and stop messing around.

She told Schofield's lawyer, Stuart Grieve, QC, they were laughing and joking afterwards. There were no hard feelings.

Another witness, investment sales manager Suzanne Love, said she saw Schofield trying to set a man's grass skirt alight but the lighter did not ignite.

Mr Grieve, appearing with Maria Pecotic, told the judge that there had been redundancies at Merrill Lynch and the hat incident involved the "symbolic burning" of a hat with a Merrill Lynch hat band.

Mr Connolly willingly participated, and it was not envisaged by any of the group that the hat would be set alight and it did not in fact catch fire.

The hat, which had soot marks, was shown to the judge.

Mr Grieve said that this incident was seen by those involved as being in jest and not in any way dangerous.

Mr Grieve said of the first burning of Mr MacFadyen's skirt that the extent of the ignition or the nature of the burning was disputed. The defence contended that just one strand of the skirt was lit, and it burned slowly without flame like a fuse, turning black.

Those involved, including Mr MacFadyen, who was fully aware of what was happening, treated it as humorous.

The defence also took issue with the claim that Schofield said after the toilet incident that he had set Mr MacFadyen's skirt on fire. He had told another person: "I lit a strand with my lighter and walked away."

The case continues today.

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