A fire broke out at the Walkerston Woolworths complex in July 2018.
A fire broke out at the Walkerston Woolworths complex in July 2018.

Newsagency owner ‘can’t recall’ loan defaults

A CROWN prosecutor has accused a Devereaux Creek woman - charged with setting fire to her newsagency for the insurance money - of changing her story to suit other evidence heard in court.

Narelle Ann Cooper has pleaded not guilty to attempted arson - it is alleged she started a blaze in her NewsXpress business on July 20, 2018 to cash in on a $700,000 insurance policy.

But her barrister Tony Collins has argued the fire could have started accidentally after his client dropped a candle in a 60L bin filled with wastepaper.

Fire at NewsXpress newsagency at Walkerston Shopping Centre
Fire at NewsXpress newsagency at Walkerston Shopping Centre

Mrs Cooper, who gave evidence today, said to the "best of my knowledge" the candle had been extinguished when she put it in the bin behind the counter.

A Mackay District Court jury heard allegations Mrs Cooper was in debt at the time of the fire.

She told the court her husband's wage had covered all their living expenses.

The court heard she had a home and business loan from Westpac and that she was still living at the same house at Devereaux Creek.

When asked directly if she set fire to her business Mrs Cooper said, "no I did not".

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Crown prosecutor Steph Gallagher suggested to Mrs Cooper that when she first spoke to police she had described the bin as being in a slightly different location.

Mrs Cooper said that was not the case.

"I suggest to you that that's not true and what you're doing now is changing your evidence from what you told police to accord with some of the fire expert evidence that we've heard," Ms Gallagher said.

"No, I'm not changing it," Mrs Cooper said.

Ms Gallagher showed Mrs Cooper a drawing she had initially done of the bin placement that did not align with her current evidence in court.

The former owner of NewsXpress newsagency at Walkerston Shopping Centre has pleaded not guilty to attempted arson.
The former owner of NewsXpress newsagency at Walkerston Shopping Centre has pleaded not guilty to attempted arson.

"I don't recall it being that way," Mrs Cooper said.

When Ms Gallagher asked Mrs Cooper about two loan defaults with Westpac and the subsequent notices of default, she said, "I can't recall."

Mrs Cooper said she was in an agreement with the bank to repay money.

Ms Gallagher suggested Mrs Cooper was also behind in her repayment plan with the Australian Taxation Office at the time of the fire.

Mrs Cooper said she did remember being on a payment plan.

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But when Ms Gallagher pushed again on whether or not that was because she was behind "in the money that you owed to them", Mrs Cooper said, "we were on a payment plan yes" and added it had been "on the advice from our accountants".

"I don't recall if I was behind or if I wasn't," Mrs Cooper told the court.

A document was shown to the jury detailing that Mrs Cooper owed $43,460.53 to the ATO.

Ms Gallagher suggested Mrs Cooper was not being truthful about what she did not recall.

The court heard Mrs Cooper had not drawn a wage and she had not for some time.

Ms Gallagher suggested the reason she was not drawing a wage at the time of the fire was because the business was not profitable.

Mrs Cooper denied this was the reason and said the money was put back into the business.

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The court heard she was also behind in her rent at one point. Mrs Cooper said this was because management had changed hands and she did not have bank details to deposit the rent.

Ms Gallagher suggested Mrs Cooper was making up her story "as you go along".

"No I'm not," Mrs Cooper said.

Mrs Cooper also denied seeing an email from her insurer reminding her the policy was up for renewal on the morning of the fire.

The trial continues tomorrow morning with closing addresses to the jury.


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