Expat pensioner faces prison over blaze

LAST UPDATED: 2 Jun, 2012 @ 13:06
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Expat pensioner faces prison over blaze

EXCLUSIVE by James Bryce

A BRITISH pensioner is facing six months in prison after being blamed for a fire that led to a helicopter and aeroplane being scrambled.

Coral Wenham, 81, from Castell de Ferro, near Motril, has been ordered to pay a fine of €5,113 for the blaze, despite a report from electricity firm Endesa clearing her of any wrongdoing.

The grandmother from Reading, must now pay €220 a month to avoid prison, despite surviving on a meagre monthly income of €350.

Failure to comply will lead to an automatic prison sentence and an increased fine of €7,800.

The court in Motril heard the fire was started by an electrical fault caused by a water pump on her property.

But it refused to consider the official Endesa report, or eyewitness accounts suggesting it was actually caused by a neighbour’s bonfire, after legal papers weren’t filed in time.

“To say my mother is devastated is an understatement, she would not survive prison,” her daughter Debbie White told the Olive Press.

“She is very confused about the whole situation and is extremely worried.

“She is desperate to leave Spain,” added the mother-of-two.

“She was bullied into admitting guilt and was found guilty before she stepped into the court building.

“Guilty until proven innocent seems the way of the Spanish court system.”

20 COMMENTS

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  1. Here we go again, no way will Brits or any other foreigner get justice in Spain, it’s a third-world system riddled with corruption.
    As has been said many times before, a foreigner is ususlly guilty even before entering the courtroom.
    Until the average foreigner actually comes up against the ‘law’, life seems great, but after the experience most people will want to get out and back to a civilised society where all people of all races are generally treated equally.
    But if we all left Spain, taking our huge pensions and other income with us, the country would probably collapse.

  2. Can one not appeal to European courts, or provincial or state institutions?

    I’m new here, but from my expat experience in other countries, brits don’t really stand up for each other. Too divided by class and regionalism. Maybe if we looked out for each other more it would not be so easy to get picked on. Other nationalities would protest in numbers (like the Spanish do) to protest about injustices.

    maybe brits could team up with other foreign nationals with strong historical and cultural links such as Scandinavians, Dutch, Germans and dare I say it, the French. Work together when these kind of issues come up.

    Also consular assistance for brits is often appalling.

  3. I quite agree, Miles, I’m amazed that some people here get virtually persecuted but no-one comes to help. What’s happened to the old fighting spirit of Britain?
    God help the UK if there was another war. But then maybe those abroad are too scared of getting fingers burnt because of language difficulties or are uncomfortable with the law as it stands.
    Back in the UK, one fondly imagines that if a threat was issued, for example, to unjustifiably knock down a pensioners only home, that thousands would turn out to stop it. But maybe that’s just a daydream from a bygone age?
    Perhaps TV and football has turned us all into spiritless morons?

  4. Thanks antonio2 I agree about the fighting spirit, though I hope it has been displaced rather than removed. A couple of generations of easy living, consumerism, mass media and intellectual (and often moral) bankruptcy of our political leadership have lobotomised many or corrupted the spirit so it ends up as football hooliganism or weekend mayhem down the pub. But, it’s still in the DNA somewhere, but mostly misplaced or badly directed (battling in some God forsaken desert or distant mountain range for no good reason) It is still evident in some sports which are popular such as rugby, or even the aggressive manner Brits play supposed non or limited contact sports such as soccer. Unfortunately our American cousins also share the lineage as is evident from the belligerent mayhem they have inflicted on the world.   Most of us ethnic brits hail from the stock of Germanic raiders, Vikings (Normans), Celtic or Pictish warrior clans or mix thereof. More recent arrivals such as Sikhs share similar lineage.   Digressing slightly, I note that there are fundraising events for “help for Heros” in Andalusia, thus presumably there are some patriotic people around. But what should really stir the patriotic juices is seeing vulnerable people from your own stock being victimized and rolled over by local mafia groups.   I say local mafia as effectively that’s what they are, groups of people who cooperate together for self interest/material reasons regardless of the law or moral considerations and thus often corrupt judicial procedures for their own benefit.   However, mafia always fear publicity and attention, especially when supposed pillars of the local community such as judges and police are caught up in it.   A lot of Spanish people know this, that’s why they band together in so many associations and civic groups and loudly protest when the local mafia groups threaten an individual’s rights and collectively hire clean lawyers to fight injustices and publicise the injustice through protests covered in the media or by using social media effectively. As the economic situation worsens and the life blood of local mafia groups is choked off, ie. regional and EU development funds and dodgy bank loans etc , they will need new sources of income. Expats, including vulnerable pensioners, will become more attractive targets, even if the pickings are somewhat slimmer than juicy development deals and local commercial monopolies. When the cupboard is bare, one eats scraps.    Hence the need for expats to learn from the locals and work together to fight against injustice whether it be financially or commercially motivated, or simply out of pique or misguided sence of entitlement or local protection (the case of the fire, the court probably knew about the bonfire and the Endesa  evidence, but hurried the proceedings along so a local guy didn’t have to cop it, maybe the local guy is “connected” somehow”).   Anyway, enough of my ramblings, back to Spanish study.

  5. Spain has recently made collaboration online into a criminal offence. For example, say if you were a group of teachers and were to go on FaceBook and organise a peaceful protest to demonstrate about education cuts. In that scenario you would automatically fall under terrorism laws and be elevated well above a criminal. So be careful when you use social networking is my advice.

  6. Another sensationalist, one-sided story. In fact, the article even contradicts itself on numerous points:

    1. “The court in Motril heard the fire was started by an electrical fault caused by a water pump on her property.”

    2. “…or eyewitness accounts suggesting it was actually caused by a neighbour’s bonfire.”

    3. “…after legal papers weren’t filed in time.”

    4. “Guilty until proven innocent seems the way of the Spanish court system.”

    5. “She was bullied into admitting guilt.”

    The woman was, in fact, presumed innocent until she had her day in court (as we see – the court did hear the arguments and weigh the evidence. She was just found guilty in the end.) The woman didn’t file her legal defense papers on time – big mistake. She admitted guilt – an even bigger mistake. The court considered the claim that this was due to an electrical fault, (which does not mean she is still not culpable, legally). Endessa indicated the same, but this still does not remove legal culpability if it was on her property. Eyewitnesses contradicted the Endessa report (saying it was due to a bonfire), which probably explains why the judge dismissed the Endessa report.

    It looks to me like an accident happened and this poor woman had to pay the price. She got her day in court, but she lost. And it seems like she lost not because she was a foreigner, but because of her own legal errors (filing late, admitting guilt) and also because of eyewitness testimony contradicting her defense. 5k Euros is th price she had to pay – less than the actual cost of the fuel for the rescue vehicle. She actually got of extremely light, compared to the damage she caused – or what would have happened to her were she found culpable of starting such a fire in the UK.

    I would reiterate – the biggest mistake was that she admitted guilt. People always claim they are “bulled” into admitting guilt. And it is true – police are, in fact, trained to get people to admit guilt. That is a part of their job. A smart person is to remain completely silent and get a lawyer – let your lawyer do the talking. She sealed her own fate because she didn’t know the law. Not just the law in Spain – but the law all over Europe. Once you admit guilt then you’re guilty. Saying “the police bullied me” afterward isn’t a defense.

    I would try to be less biased when reading stories on the Olive Press. They are already spun in an anti-Spanish fashion. But even from this article it is easy to see that the woman is legally culpable. It was also obviously an accident and it is obvious that some 80+ year old woman isn’t going to have any clue how to deal with the legal system. She clearly didn’t do anything malicious or intentional. It isn’t like she was running around starting fires.

    But she had her day in court – just like any Spanish person. She failed to abide by the court regulations (submitting late). She admitted guilt. Witnesses contradicted each other. And she got off extremely easily with a 5k fine for the actual damage and damage control costs she caused (which could easily be in excess of 50k euros). I’d say she got it pretty easy. Things would not have gone any differently for her if she were Spanish.

    Side note: There is currently a Spanish man in jail right now for 3 years because he stole a pizza from the back of a delivery moto. First offense – no criminal record. He simply did the same – admitted guilt and ignored court requirements to respond on time. This woman – for a much more serious crime – got off a lot easier than this Spanish man did,

    So lets stop with the “blah blah blah Spanish mafia they hate us such much and we’re such huge victims” mentality.

  7. The rose-tinted RealiTrol must surely work for the Spanish Tourist Board lol. The story is most accurate and shows the reality of Spain for those who live and work here.

    Basically, this case should never have got to court. There is no “crime” here. It was a freak accident, caused by a malfunctioning electric pump. It was not a malicious act. When a woman was recently fined for starting a bonfire that got out of control, her fine was justified as the fire was outside the permitted months of the year. In this case the sentence was overly harsh.

    What story are you rewriting next RealiTrol? Look forward to it.

  8. Fred – “Basically, this case should never have got to court. There is no “crime” here.”

    Frankly I think the humane thing to do would have been to just let her go. We’re talking about a 80 year old woman who, I am sure, had no clue how to deal with this type of a situation. She isn’t running around starting fires for fun.

    It was an accident. But if I hit someone with my car and they die – that’s also an accident. And it’s a crime. And I’d have to pay, be it with jail, fines or both. Crimes don’t have to be intentional or malicious. When you cause damage you’ve got to pay for it. You break it – you buy it.

    In this case there was, in fact, a crime. It was quite an extensive bit of property damage. And someone has to pay for that. Had the woman not shown up in court – filed her motions late – and admitted she was guilty then it would probably have been Endessa paying. She got fined in court for a crime she admitted committing – a fine that is actually less than the cost of the damage she caused. What more could someone ask for in a situation like that?

    Aside from saying, “Oh, it’s okay, you can just go free even though you admitted guilt.” What would have been a better deal for her?

    Fred – “The story is most accurate and shows the reality of Spain for those who live and work here.”

    Funny you should say that. About half of the people who respond to comments are don’t live in Spain. (Was it you or someone else who moved to France but still posts here?) We’re talking temporary tourists or sunny-season residents. The other half are retired pensioners who don’t work at all. Those of us who both live and work in Spain are the minority.

  9. Another point based on the title of the article:

    “Expat pensioner faces prison over blaze.”

    This expat pensioner doesn’t face prison over the blaze. She faces a 5k Euro fine. Only if she refused to pay the fine would she face prison – which is actually true of refusing to pay any fine, including traffic tickets, in Spain.

    It is also worth noting that in Spain, people rarely end up actually doing prison time even if convicted of a crime that require less than 3 years. It would be very rare for an 81 year old foreign woman to do prison time in Spain

    Compare that, to, say, the USA – which has the highest prison population in the world. Or the United Kingdom, which has both a larger prisoner population and greater prisoner-per-capita than Spain.

    Basically, she’s lucky this didn’t happen to her in one of the countries people like to call “civilized” or she might actually do real prison time.

  10. “But if I hit someone with my car and they die – that’s also an accident.”

    It most certainly is not, that’s careless driving. The law would automatically assume that you had a duty to act carefully.

    “You break it – you buy it.”

    Again, incorrect. Because you break something it is not legally enforcable to make you pay for it or buy it.

    “About half of the people who respond to comments are don’t live in Spain.”

    How do you know that? Have you examined every single comment, or are you just guessing?

    And why can’t a person who has moved to France (not me btw) who lived in Spain for a long period of time, not comment on Spain?

    I’m glad you agree at least that Spain was not humane in this particular case.

  11. Fred – “It most certainly is not, that’s careless driving. The law would automatically assume that you had a duty to act carefully.”

    It could be careless driving. It would still be labeled an “accidental death” legally. Thus, the difference between murder and manslaughter. If I drove boat around the coast intentionally trying to hit bathers like I was gaining points in a video game it would be entirely different than if I accidentally hit someone who was in the water because I didn’t see them. So, there is definitely a difference – both qualitatively and legally – between an ‘accidental’ crime and intentional one.

    So something can be an actual accident and still a crime. Saying “oops it was an accident” doesn’t necessarily absolve someone. Again a car example: if I were driving carelessly (or even very carefully) and I hit somebody it wouldn’t be intentional. Not unless I was purposefully aiming to run them down. Yet, I would still be legally culpable. And I would face a less harsh penalty than a maniac running around trying to smash people with a vehicle. And also a less severe penalty than someone under the influence of drug/alcohol, someone without insurance, without a license, etc. There are all different levels of legal culpability and they do take into consideration that some crimes are accidents, or that some accidental crimes are even more legitimately accidents than the next.

    So there is a difference between a crime that was an accident and a crime committed intentionally.

    Fred – “Again, incorrect. Because you break something it is not legally enforcable to make you pay for it or buy it.”

    You’re right, in part – depends on the situation of course. That’s why people end up in court. And of course a court isn’t always going to make the right decision (legally or morally). But often, people are held culpable for destruction they cause. Even if they did it accidentally, or if it occurred completely without their knowledge (negligence).

    Fred – “I’m glad you agree at least that Spain was not humane in this particular case.”

    I absolutely agree. If it were up to me, I’d let the poor 80 year old woman go and make Endessa handle the bill. However, from a legal perspective, I understand why she got hit with the culpability. She made a huge, huge, gigantic mistake – she admitted guilt. I think that was the final nail in the coffin.

    Never admit guilt. In fact, never even talk to law enforcement without legal representation. “Lawyer up” – as they say. You can’t trust the police and the courts to protect you (their job is the opposite – to arrest and convict). This is just as true in Spain as anywhere.

    And had this woman admitted guilt in any other country she would be in the exact same situation. It’s not a issue of Spain oppressing some little old lady, but a symptom of the adversarial nature of the way we’ve developed legal systems in Western culture. Look at how many prisoners are in the UK and USA due to coerced confessions (higher prison population by number and per capita than Spain has). When the police get called in someone has to pay. And if you’ve got someone stepping up admitting guilt then they’re going down – even if they were not actually guilty.

  12. Without going into the why’s and wherefor’s of this case, I would say that from a common sense point of view this lady would not have been prosecuted in the UK. If she had deliberately caused a fire, a different story.
    But Spain has a much more severe attitude to fires, accidental or deliberate, for obvious reasons. The culprits for most fires are never found and this must increase the frustration of the authorities to such an extent that even a totally unpreventable fire such as with this case, is dealt with severely.
    A recent fire locally caused massive damage and tens of thousands of euros to tackle. Rumoured to have been started within a football pitch by a cigarette butt, but will the club be prosecuted? I very much doubt it. Where would they get the money from?
    The financial circumstances of this elderly lady were known to the court but they were still determined to extract their ‘pound of flesh’ no matter she could not pay at the rate demanded.

  13. “So there is a difference between a crime that was an accident and a crime committed intentionally.”

    One of these days, Reality, you may actually tell OP readers something they don’t already know lol.

    Despite your ptotestations expatriates in Spain are treated vastly differently when it comes to law enforcement, and no amount of requoting posts will change that.

  14. Fred – “Despite your ptotestations expatriates in Spain are treated vastly differently when it comes to law enforcement, and no amount of requoting posts will change that.”

    Yes. Rich people are also treated differently than poor people. People of certain nationalities (or religion, ethnicity, skin color, etc.) are treated differently. True in every country. Contrast the way a Jamaican in Bristol is treated to a native Londoner from Mayfair. People who speak Spanish are also treated differently than those who don’t. People who know how to work the Spanish legal system are treated differently than those who show up and expect it to work like the UK. The world is not equal.

    But if you want equality, it’s your responsibility to grab as much of it as you can. The burden is on you. Make the world give it to you. You’ve come to a foreign country – you’d better be strong and adapt. Learn Spanish. Get a good lawyer. Network with your Neighborhood Association (then you’ll have some friends in the Guardia to look out for you).

    Don’t isolate yourself in a villa on a hill if you aren’t already a part of the agricultural community there. Don’t become a part of an expat community and isolate yourself even further – making yourself seem stand-offish and offensive. Don’t speak English while living in Spain for 10+ years despite not learning a lick of the native language. Don’t expect or do anything the natives wouldn’t expect or do. This will fix 99% of your problems.

    Like I said before – Dear Lord, please help any of these individuals who try to live someplace more exotic than Marbella.

    The absurdity is the persecution complex. The perpetual victim complex. Especially for an English person – a retiree, living in a luxury country villa on a pension who does not have to work. Excuse me if I have less sympathy for this group, than, say, the way the Spanish treat Moroccans or the Sub-Saharans. These people hustle all day long for nothing, run from the police, have no legal protection, get refused to rent in nice neighborhoods, get kicked out of bars – basically persecuted in every type of racist scenario you can imagine.

    British expats face none of this. I’d love for you to trade places with a Moroccan, Romanian, Sub-Saharan or even a poor Spaniard for a day to see just how good you actually have it. Then you will see how “vastly” different some groups – but definitely not the British – are actually treated.

    It reminds me of the Looky-Looky Men article where someone essentially wrote, “I was sitting in my 10 Euro/Hour paid hammock drinking my 10 Euro cocktail, enjoying my luxury resort experience, outside of my 200 Euro/Night hotel, but I was scared because hungry refugees from a war-torn country – who probably traveled 2 days in a leaky raft to sell cheap sunglasses so their families have food to eat – kept showing me cartons of watches. Why don’t the police do something about these people?!”

  15. I’d like to agree with you Reality, but as with Fred, collective experiences are somewhat worse than your own.
    I can recount many examples but will quote just a few.
    Like the solo English lady driver stopped locally and breathalysed positive. She stood dejected and handcuffed by the main road.
    Like an English holiday family near Nerja, seen out of their car, children and parents on the pavement, while the police went over everything with a tape measure, seat belt sizes etc., anything to drum up a useful fine.
    Like friends living near to Almeria. All the foreigners are hounded constantly by the police and stopped almost daily. Life there from that point of view is a nightmare.
    But what I don’t understand is the sheer number of Spanish drivers, of trucks and cars, driving along with either a mobile to their heads or tapping out text on them. They obviously get ignored or there wouldn’t be much traffic on the roads!!
    These are just motoring examples but I can assure you that similar situations apply across the board of life in general.

  16. Antono2 – “…things you said…”

    I agree with you on the facts of the individual cases – I’m not saying any of it didn’t happen (the English lady being handcuffed, police sizing up everything with a tape measure, police stopping foreigners in Almeria, etc.”)

    But what I want to know is if there is really any hard evidence to show that this happens more to foreigners than to the Spanish? Because, for one, I hear all of the exact same complaints from the Spanish. Not a single day goes by that I don’t hear about some story of the police doing something wrong from a Spanish person, some issue with taxes, insurance, illegal property, hipotecas, etc. All the exact same complaints as foreigners.

    So, why do you think this is happening to foreigners more? There is a heuristic bias of frequency; if things happen to us, we are the ones that are experiencing them, so we assume others like us experience the same (and others unlike us experience things differently.). Essentially – an event happens for one reason and we assume it happens for a different one related specifically to biases we’ve developed due to past experience (in this case, hearing foreign antidotes from the foreign media and other foreigners).

    We have many anecdotes, such as those on the Olive Press. And many ancedotes told to us by others we know. Consider that if you live in an expat community, or have even a moderate group of expat friends, you are going to hear a majority of stories about expats being the victims. If you have less Spanish friends then you’re not going to hear very many stories about the Spanish having the same issues.

    This doesn’t mean, in actuality, foreigners have more or less bad luck than the Spanish. It’s just statistics – you only hear one side of the story so you think that one side is the full story.

    So I would like to know – is there any actual evidence to support the claims the British are being singled out? For example, some statistics?

    (Example: According to the Guardian, a “new study finds seven times more black people per population are in prison – in the US number is just four times as many)

    You know, something similar – “10 times more British in Spanish prisons than Spanish natives.”

  17. Somewhat late in the day for a response, but Reality, let’s just see what happens now about the two major fires reported recently, both caused by fires started deliberately by hunters to flush out animals for shooting.
    I’ve a feeling nothing will happen, the culprits are Spanish and perhaps offer a less attractive target for fund-raising than an English 80 year old pensioner.

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