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Estate shooting manager accused of burning down Michelin-starred restaurant has case dropped

Charlie Birkett
Charlie Birkett said outside the court that the case had made his life 'extremely hard' - Dave Higgens/PA

A shooting estate manager accused of burning down a 14th-century Michelin-starred restaurant has been told he is “perfectly innocent” after allegations against him were dropped.

Charlie Birkett was charged with arson after the fire which engulfed the thatched Star Inn at Harome, near Helmsley, North Yorkshire in November 2021.

At York Crown Court on Friday, more than two years later, the 28-year-old was told by a judge: “You leave this court without a stain on your character.”

At the hearing, prosecutors offered no evidence in the case after a new report was produced by one of Britain’s leading fire investigators, Dr Peter Mansi.

The report, which prosecutors reviewed and ultimately agreed with, was paid for by Mr Birkett’s family who run the Rievaulx Sporting Estate in North Yorkshire.

The court was told Mr Birkett was charged on the basis that he deliberately put a cigarette into the thatch of the building.

However, prosecutors admitted that Dr Mansi’s report showed that the fire was caused by a candle in a makeshift ashtray igniting cigarette butts, which spread to dead ivy around the door of the pub.

Criticised the investigation

In an emotional statement read on the steps of the court, Mr Birkett said his life had been “extremely hard” while living with the prospect of  a possible prison term of more than six years.

He criticised the police and fire service investigations, saying that many other people would not have had the financial resources to challenge the evidence in the way he did.

The Star Inn has regularly featured in lists of the best restaurants and gastropubs since the arrival of chef and patron Andrew Pern more than 25 years ago.

The inn was rebuilt and reopened on the anniversary of the fire in 2022. No one was injured in the blaze and more than 40 firefighters battled to save the building.

Recorder of York, Judge Sean Morris, said the defence team should be commended for producing such a “thoroughly convincing” report.

He said: “This was an accidental fire caused by people dropping cigarette ends into a candle holder.”

‘Case was entirely misconceived’

Speaking outside the court, Mr Birkett said that within 15 minutes of being provided with the prosecution papers, Dr Mansi “categorically could state that the prosecution case was entirely misconceived” and that fire investigators followed an “entirely incorrect hypothesis”.

Mr Birkett said his defence team was able to secure hours of video footage prior to the fire starting, which the police had, which showed “that the fire was nothing to do with me”.

A single charge of arson with recklessness as to whether property would be destroyed or life endangered was dropped.

The CPS said: “We have a duty to continually review cases and after receiving further expert evidence into the cause of the fire, we concluded there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction and stopped the case.”

North Yorkshire Police said it supported the decision to drop the charge.

A spokesman added: “In light of the outcome we will be reviewing this case to identify any learning opportunities.”