Why RFS crew suspected alleged firebug in their ranks
THE devastating images of Australia's recent bushfire emergency were described in detail by the prosecutor opposing an accused firebug's bail application.
A teenage rural firefighter who allegedly lit more than a dozen fires on the North Coast before helping to put them out sniffed back tears and held his head in his hands while appearing in Tweed Heads Local Court.
Brendan Piccini, who appeared by videolink from the Tweed Heads Police Station on Thursday, was arrested after investigations by the police's arson squad with help from the NSW RFS fire investigators.
The police facts allege the 18-year-old came to the attention of his local Burringbar Rural Fire Service station over fires in the Burringbar and Mooball areas between October 7 and November 3 believed to be deliberately lit.
Police allege Mr Piccini lit several blazes in the area before returning to respond to the fire as part of his duties as a volunteer.
Documents tendered in court revealed the Burringbar local got his firefighter accreditation in June 2020.
It is alleged on October 7 Mr Piccini, who is normally on time, arrived 20 minutes late to an RFS station meeting.
Seven minutes later a Triple 0 call sent the crew, including Mr Piccini, to a suspicious fire along Hardwood Rd.
The fire captain remarked to the crew, including Mr Piccini, he was glad the fire wasn't lit on the other side of the road otherwise it would have been much worse.
On October 17, it is alleged Mr Piccini and the Burringbar RFS crew was called to a fire on the opposite side of the Hardwood Rd.
The blaze was well alight, there were strong winds and the blaze blackened a 30m x 30m area.
On another occasion on October 16 about 7.10pm, it is alleged Mr Piccini contaminated evidence found at the scene of a suspicious fire by picking up a milk bottle against the advice of his fire captain.
Mr Piccini allegedly was able to pinpoint a fire nobody else could see while travelling at 80km hr down a road on October 20.
Later that month, it is alleged Piccini's phone was used to report a suspicious fire to Triple 0.
Investigators following Mr Piccini on November 3 saw him leave his work as an apprentice butcher in Murwillumbah about 6pm.
It is alleged he drove to Yarrabee Terrace at Stokers Siding before returning home.
Shortly after when investigators returned to the Stokers Siding spot, a blaze was well-alighted along a property's fence line.
Mr Piccini was arrested on Wednesday and it is alleged he made full admissions to setting the fire captured on police officer's body worn video, the court heard.
According to court papers, in a recorded interview at the station, it is alleged Mr Piccini admitted to using dry leaves, a cigarette lighter and pages of paper from his diary to start the fires on his way home from work and once on his way home from volunteering at the Cudgen Surf Life Saving Club.
It is alleged Mr Piccini told officers he felt a sense of excitement knowing he would get a call-out from the RFS.
During a search of his Burringbar home, police allegedly found and seized a replica pistol.
Mr Piccini did not enter pleas to nine counts of intentionally causing a fire and being reckless to its spread, and one count of possessing an unauthorised pistol.
He was supported in court by his parents who also gave a letter of support.
Defence solicitor Amanda Fawaz said Mr Piccini was diagnosed to have Autism Spectrum Disorder, presented at mentally younger than his physical age, had no criminal history and would have difficulty if kept in custody.
Ms Fawaz said her client had suffered from a difficult childhood and had to change schools due to bullying.
She said his parents and aunt had offered to take annual leave from their jobs to supervise him at home on bail, had booked him a session with his doctor and could offer $20,000 as a surety.
Police prosecutor Alix Thom said the serious allegations were not one off incidents and had drastically escalated.
"In my submission he cannot resist the urge to commit further offences," Ms Thom said.
She said it was unknown if the alleged offending would have continued if Mr Piccini was not caught.
"Your honour would know all too well what happened in summer prior to COVID … we watched on in horror to the national disaster of the bushfires … images of families fleeing their homes are seared into our minds," Ms Thom said.
"Community protection is a huge issue when these mattes had the same potential to affect not only the safety of families but also their financial positions as uncontrollable fires destroy homes and businesses. These fires had huge potential to cause loss of life."
Magistrate Geoff Dunlevy cited the strength of the prosecution case and the escalation of the offences as posing a "great risk to the community" when he denied bail.
"There are indicators of an underlying pathology in the alleged offences," he said.
Ms Fawaz also applied to have Mr Piccini's identity suppressed for fear of both his and his family's safety citing he was a vulnerable young man with disabilities.
Ms Thom argued there was no evidence given to support Mr Piccini's diagnosis as someone with ASD and it was in the public interest for his case to be published.
Mr Dunlevy acknowledged the proceedings were an "emotive" topic but ruled he could not assume the community would not be law abiding in relation to the issue of safety when he denied the suppression application.
The case will return to court on November 23.