A 33-year-old man who broke into the former Belfast Telegraph building and caused thousands of pounds worth of damage after starting a fire in the premises was handed a 22-month sentence on Tuesday.
Christian Stefan Topiter, who is originally from Romanian and who was effectively homeless at the time, was informed by Judge Patricia Smyth that he will spend half his sentence in prison, followed by an 11-month period on supervised licence.
Sentencing Topiter at Belfast Crown Court, Judge Smyth told him: “Very significant damage was caused by you and suffered by the owners of that building.”
Topiter, from Parkmore in Craigavon, pleaded guilty to charges of burglary and arson following his arrest at a immigration detention centre in Glasgow where he was awaiting deportation.
Prior to jailing Topiter, Judge Smyth heard that on February 21, 2018, Topiter had “sneaked into” the historic four-storey building on Belfast’s Royal Avenue when workers had left for the evening.
Prosecution lawyer Philip Henry said that once inside Topiter “secreted himself in the ceiling of the building’’ on the first floor and that for a period of around four hours, CCTV footage recorded the defendant “roaming around the building wearing a back pack.”
Mr Henry said Topiter paid particular attention to a first floor technology hub owned by Digital Catapult Ltd and was captured on CCTV “filling his back pack with electronic items.” Also captured on CCTV was Topiter starting a fire with combustables at around 9.30pm
The prosecutor said that around 11pm, Topiter smashed a window and cut himself when leaving the building with his back pack, and that DNA recovered matched his.
Regarding the damage caused, Mr Henry said the Fire and Rescue Service was alerted to the blaze at the building around 3.30am the following morning.
Extensive damage was caused to the building - which is currently owned by Belfast City Council - with the most recent assessment of damage amounting to around £279,000. Mr Henry revealed a further £51,000’s worth of damage was caused to Digital Catapult.
A barrister acting on behalf of Topiter said that on the evening in question Topiter had consumed alcohol and had taken prescription medication which resulted in no recollection of what he did.
Pointing out that this client put himself in danger by remaining in the building for a period after he started the fire, the barrister said it was “highly likely” Topiter will be deported when he finishes his sentence.
Judge Smyth said she noted that at the time Topiter was homeless after the breakdown of a relationship and was drinking. She also noted his “unstable upbringing and difficult childhood” in Romania and told Topiter: “I have received a letter from the prison which tells me you have used your time in custody constructively.”