Little girl saved family from fire but fate led her to become killer arsonist

Karen Pedley was just 10 when she was hailed a hero for saving her family from a devastating fire that gutted their home.

The blaze started in an airing cupboard and it was Pedley who raised the alarm to her parents before everyone was evacuated safely.

Her sister Jenny later recalled: “The flames were coming out and I had to jump the flames to get out of the house. I was the last one out and we lost everything, absolutely everything in that house fire.”

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But despite their home in Bedfordshire being destroyed in 1983, Pedley's reputation skyrocketed and she was lauded in newspapers and was even awarded a special flight on Concorde for her bravery.

Photos in the press showed her as a bright-eyed little girl with a beaming smile who was understandably lapping up the applause.

But this innocent picture was a complete contrast to her haunted expression in a police mugshot years later after she was charged with murder – for starting a fatal fire of her own.

Complete deprivation of attention

Pedley was one of seven children in the Stringer family and experts who studied her case believe she may have lacked attention growing up.

Dr Donna Youngs, a Forensic Psychologist, was interviewed for the Made For Murder documentary and she said: “Six siblings struggle for attention in any circumstances, but in this family, my sense is that she was barely identified as a separate human being.

“To any child, the amount of attention that Karen Pedley got for saving the day in this fire that broke out in the family home would impact upon them, but to someone whose childhood, whose upbringing to this point, was so psychologically barren, the impact on her and who she became would have been enormous.”

Chillingly, she added: “When you have the complete deprivation of attention and the complete deprivation of right and wrong, it produces what can be almost likened to an almost feral child. A child almost raised in the world, now a feral child who will do almost anything to survive.”

Some of her family members later denied that she missed out on attention but they conceded that being branded a heroine so young had a major influence on her.

And after the newspapers moved on and found new stories, Pedley had to accept that it was an extraordinary moment in an otherwise normal and mundane existence. But the high of being celebrated was something she could never let go of.

Caring aunt on a moped

After the house fire, the family moved to Cornwall and it was here where Pedley grew up and eventually married and had children of her own.

And on the outside, she looked to be living a pleasant existence. Her nephew, Junior Stringer, spoke about her in the murder doc and said: “She was a really caring auntie, she would take us out on her moped.

“Yeah she was a bit reckless but it was like she was safe at doing it. She wouldn’t put us in any danger and if she knew something was going to happen she would make it stop before it did happen. Out of all the aunts and uncles that I had, my auntie Karen was my favourite because she was there for us and really supportive.”

But despite this, things were not so merry in reality, and troubled thoughts tormented Pedley who struggled to hold down menial jobs.

Former policeman, Neil Lancaster, said she was often sacked from pubs and in 2002 a fire broke out shortly after she stopped working as a cleaner in a nursing home.

Nobody was hurt and no arrests were made but in 2006 she moved to a new village where fires seemed to follow her everywhere she went.

Ex-detective, Peter Bleksley, said: “She worked at a shop, care home and working man’s club and at some stage, all of those premises were set alight. It seemed if Karen got cross, fire would follow soon after.”

Another cop said she was usually the one who called the fire brigade and was first on scene desperate to help. She was also let go from one care home after falling asleep under a table after a night shift before a blaze was started there days later.

However, nobody was able to join the dots, and emotionless Pedley was able to continue her bizarre and incredibly dangerous behaviour undetected.

Becoming a Killer

Clearly infatuated with fires after her life-changing experience as a 10-year-old, Pedley was now a serial arsonist, despite others being unaware of it.

Criminologist Dr Jane Monkton Smith said of her: “This is a mania, a compulsion, this is something that is taking over her thoughts way too much of the time and very often those people will wants to be there once the fire is set, that is the glory moment of them, it is such a huge drama and all because of them, they created it.”

Pedley found a job at Rosewyn House Residential Home in Alverton Terrace, Truro, in 2008, where her perilous compulsion led to murder.

The highly regarded home was run by Jenny Spargo whose own mum was being looked after there. Describing her vital work, she said: “I also lived there which meant I was there 24/7 so they were more family to me. It was just the way I lived. It wasn’t a job any more, it was just my life.”

Having no convictions or red flag references, Pedley started shifting there as a cook and cleaner before taking over some caring duties.

Her sister, Jenny, said she often whined about the supposedly dangerous electrics and how it all “needed redoing” because she deemed it a fire risk.

But Pedley was just up to her old tricks and was preparing to cause more chaos – but this time she would not be the hero.

Jenny remembered the horrifying day in November 2008 as starting out normally but she said Pedley, usually unassuming and quiet, was in a noticeably chirpy mood.

She recalled seeing Pedley in the room of a 96-year-old resident called Gladys Rowe who had lived there for nine years and was immensely popular with everyone.

“They had music on and they were singing and laughing and playing around,” Jenny remembered.

However, less than 30 minutes later, the room of Gladys and her roommate Joan Olive Ray was on fire.

Pedley had set fire to the curtains and a distraught Jenny said: “I tried to open the door and I couldn’t because the room was just black and I would say in 48 years of care it is the worst thing I have ever done. It was just a horrible, horrible night. I just opened it slightly and it was just completely black, you couldn’t see anything, you couldn’t see a thing.”

Five days after the fire, Gladys was pronounced dead in hospital, and Pedley never returned to the workplace for her shifts. Suspicious cops arrested her in connection to it but she was released after no evidence was found.

Hero once again?

Shockingly, despite a woman losing her life after she started a blaze in her room knowing she was too vulnerable and frail to escape, Pedley continued playing with fire.

And two years later, she targeted the home of her sister who lived 30 minutes away. Jenny had phoned Pedley after contacting the fire brigade but thought it strange that she was on the scene within five minutes.

After the home was destroyed, Pedley told her sister that she and the kids could move in with her, which they did for three months.

However, her behaviour was eerie. Her nephew, Junior, said: “My auntie Pedley was making jokes and everything, like there was a bag of crisps on the floor, and she was like ‘does anyone want these smokey bacon crisps’?”

Justice at last…

Pressure started to build on Pedley who knew police were investigating a number of arsons in the area and she was the number one suspect concerning the fatal fire at the care home. She even begged her sister for an alibi before threatening another former colleague – telling them she would burn their house down if they didn’t help her.

And after a police tip off, they raided her home in 2012 where a scrapbook was found containing all the newspaper clippings from 1983, where she was described as a hero.

Soon, the pattern was found and in 2013, when she had relocated all the way north to Newcastle, she was arrested and charged with murder.

Unable to help herself, she even started a fire in her own cell, before being handed 14 life sentences after being convicted of murder and she was sentenced to a minimum of 27 years imprisonment. But Pedley was acquitted of the attempted murder of Joan Olive Ray, another resident who survived the fire after staying in the same room as Gladys.

But she was also convicted of 12 counts of arson and Mr Justice Nigel Teare said at sentencing in 2016: “The life sentences are necessary for the protection of the public.

“The remarkable aspect is that Pedley continued to offend even after she committed the arson that claimed the life of Gladys Rowe.

“She had a history of starting fires where people live. The murder had several aggravating factors – the use of fire as a weapon, the significant premeditation as arson had been in Karen Pedley’s mind ever since she started work at Rosewyn.

“There was also the fact the victim was a frail elderly lady, that Pedley was employed as a carer so the crime represents a breach of trust and the crime also endangered the life of another resident Olive Ray, and other residents and staff. Finally the fact she blamed others for the fire initially saying it was caused by an electrical fault.”

The Made For Murder documentary on Karen Pedley is now available on Apple TV.

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