Squat, bespectacled and balding, save for the defiant rearguard of grey hair that fell from his pink scalp like the flap of a legionnaire’s hat, James Balcombe looked nothing like your classic crime don. He may have been wearing a black suit in court, but his dishevelled mien, like that of a man leaving work drinks at 3am, lent the garment the gravitas of a tracksuit.
Nor did Balcombe – whose business, Awesome Party Hire, supplied inflatable jumping castles for fetes and children’s parties – look overly concerned as people accused him of undercutting competitors, of threatening “to come after” a witness if he worked for his competitors, and of orchestrating the firebombings of a string of rival bouncy-castle businesses.
It was as if Balcombe, supported in court by a woman whose baby bump was not yet a match for his own bulging belly, was not the wannabe king of the (inflatable) kingdom. Rather, it was as if he were but a curious onlooker who had entered Magistrate Sarah Dawes’s courtroom in error but stayed due to the attention-grabbing incompatibility of Molotov cocktails and kids’ jumping castles.
But over two days in February 2018, at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, Balcombe, 53, was committed to stand trial on 10 charges of alleged criminal damage by fire, having been accused of paying others to incinerate his competitors’ equipment in a quest to dominate the industry.
In early May this year he didn’t show at a court hearing; police have issued a warrant for his arrest.
In November 2017 at the nearby County Court, Balcombe had watched the plea hearing of Craig Anderson, 30, with a similar lack of apparent concern. Sitting in the public gallery, Balcombe listened as the prosecutor outlined the string of offences that occurred between December 2016 and March 2017 to which Anderson had confessed. He heard that Anderson’s co-accused, Peter Smith, 35, had given a detailed statement to the police consistent with Anderson’s confession. He heard, too, of the men’s claims that it was he, Balcombe, who’d put them up to it.
As would soon be obvious, Anderson and Smith were not master arsonists. They eschewed gloves, masks and burner mobile phones, and did not seem at all familiar with police procedurals. Had they never watched CSI? Indeed the whole affair might have been seen as material for a bumbling crime caper were it not for the disquieting matter of Anderson and Smith’s respective backgrounds and motivations. And, especially, the trauma suffered by a family whose misfortune it was to own the only rival business the arsonists successfully managed to burn down.
Thickset with a broad face and cultivated sideburns, Anderson fronted his County Court plea hearing in a spinnaker-sized grey suit. His white shirt collar spread over the lapels like a pair of albatross wings. The public gallery included his mother, his de facto and Balcombe. Presiding was Judge Felicity Hampel, whose stiletto heels looked like metal spikes. You couldn’t help but wonder, as the catalogue of charges against Anderson was read to the court, whether it prompted any particular regrets. About committing the crimes, certainly, but also about the many times he’d failed to cover his tracks.
Anderson and Smith met in high school and were close friends. Smith, a welder by trade, had once worked for Balcombe but he stopped due to a rancorous fallout with his ex-partner, who was also employed by Balcombe. Nevertheless it’s alleged that Balcombe later approached Smith, and it was Smith who then introduced Anderson to Balcombe. Anderson claimed (as Smith would too) that Balcombe asked him to undertake arson attacks on five of his competitors, some of whom, Balcombe allegedly said, had stolen his ideas. The payment would be $2000 per job. Anderson and Smith didn’t appear to mull things over for long before saying yes. A friend of theirs, Travis Ransom, was brought onboard as a getaway driver. His main qualification appeared to be the fact he had a car.
The first two of 10 charges against Anderson – and the only two against Smith – concerned events that took place during the early hours of December 20, 2016. Late the previous evening, Anderson, Smith and Ransom drove in Ransom’s Holden Commodore from Anderson’s home in Mill Park, in Melbourne’s north, to a service station in Werribee, in the outer south-west. After filling a 10-litre jerry can with petrol, and then stopping at a McDonald’s for a bite to eat, they went to an industrial estate in Russell Street, Werribee.
At 2.10am CCTV cameras picked up Anderson and Smith walking down the driveway that led to CRP Tarps, a PVC textile fabrication and repair business owned and operated by Chamika Piyadigama. Piyadigama repaired jumping castles for many of the party-hire operators in Melbourne. Ransom stayed in the car as Anderson and Smith smashed a couple of windows and poured petrol inside. They then lit a bottle filled with petrol – “And I use the colloquial expression of Molotov cocktail, Your Honour,” as prosecutor Nicholas Batten put it – and threw it inside. Smith would later admit they had no specific plan and were essentially winging it.
They didn’t hang around long enough to see that the fire failed to take hold. Nor did they think to take with them two additional, and unused, Molotov cocktails they’d prepared: one a plastic cordial bottle, the other an ice-coffee bottle. These were found by Piyadigama when he turned up at work at 7am, along with the broken window and minor fire damage.
By then Anderson, Smith and Ransom had visited a second business, Xtreme Party Hire in Tullamarine, some 40 kilometres from Werribee in Melbourne’s north-west. Ransom again remained with the car while Anderson and Smith approached the factory housing the business, which was owned and operated by Andrew Saliba. At 3.38am CCTV recorded them as they stopped at a Ford Transit van bearing the company’s logo in front of the factory. Anderson doused the remaining contents of the jerry can over and under the van before Smith helped him set it ablaze. After they left the scene a neighbouring worker saw the fire and called emergency services. The van could not be saved. Questioned by video link at Balcombe’s committal hearing as to why he burned the car, Anderson replied, “It was there, it was accessible and we thought he’d [Balcombe] be happy with that, but he wasn’t.”
Anderson told police he and Smith met with Balcombe the next day at a Taco Bill in the north-eastern suburbs. A similar routine was followed after every fire (except the last). Balcombe, they said, would assess the quality of the job and show Anderson, on his phone, the address of the next target, which Anderson would photograph with his own phone. At this initial meeting Balcombe was displeased with the results, according to Anderson, and withheld payment for the Tullamarine job.
At Balcombe’s committal hearing, his counsel, Geoff Steward, asked Anderson how he felt about not being paid. “Ah, well, obviously we weren’t happy, but we were just going to do it – just do it properly,” Anderson replied. “It was like we owed him, you know what I mean? … But [Smith] didn’t want any more to do with it. He just needed some money to fix his dog, you know what I mean?”
Smith would tell Steward at the same hearing that his dog, Jedda, was unwell, having had caustic soda poured over her. He only did the jobs, he said, to pay the veterinary bills.
In early 2017, Anderson and Ransom were back in the Commodore – though Smith was not. As the court heard, he’d had second thoughts and withdrawn his services as an arsonist, grateful that the first two fires didn’t have serious consequences. This, Judge Hampel felt inclined to remark at his sentencing, was only down to “good luck, not good management”. Judge Hampel, one suspected, was taking a hard line.
Entertaining none of Smith’s reservations, at 3.50am on January 6, Anderson and Ransom drove to the fittingly named Rimfire Drive, Hallam, in the city’s south-east. Their target was a second premises belonging to Andrew Saliba and Xtreme Party Hire. After an initial reconnaissance, they parked the Commodore and changed its registration plates. Anderson prepared a number of Molotov cocktails before getting out of the car. He then smashed the front glass door of the business with a rock and lobbed in one of the bottles.
There was no firestorm, however, as the petrol bomb extinguished after burning just a small patch of vinyl flooring in the reception area. Police later found three unused Molotov cocktails outside. On one of the bottles – which originally contained Kentucky Gold bourbon – police would identify Anderson’s finger-prints. Ransom’s fingerprints were found on another. The incident was also captured on CCTV.
Five days later, Anderson and Ransom drove to Graham Court, Hoppers Crossing, an outer suburb adjacent to Werribee. Just before midnight on January 11, they pulled up outside a two-storey factory leased by A & A Jumping Castles, a party-hire business owned and operated by Michael and Aline Andrew. CCTV showed Anderson – wearing a mask, for the first and last time – smashing a window before throwing in a Molotov cocktail.
This time it had the intended effect. Despite the efforts of around 50 firefighters and 11 fire engines, the building and its entire contents were destroyed, along with an Isuzu truck parked out front. As the Andrews would later tell the court, in an affecting victim impact statement, the fire – “a terrible conflagration” as Judge Hampel called it – had devastated them financially and emotionally.
An inventory of destroyed items – some $175,000 worth – was read out to the court along with their indicative values. It included 110 jumping castles ($80,000), two industrial sewing machines used for repairing jumping castles ($10,000), five small children’s petrol-powered Jeeps ($20,000), two go-karts and a stock racing car ($5000), a dismantled stretch limousine ($5000), five trailers ($10,000), a leased forklift ($30,000) and a mechanical bull ($20,000). In addition, inside the factory were stored six jumping castles belonging to Andrew Saliba, plus another seven castles and associated equipment belonging to World of Kids, a provider of out-of-school services for children. Harder to value were the computer and financial records lost in the fire.
In all, the court heard, the estimate to repair and rebuild was $1,481,448. There was also an estimated $200,000 worth of damage done to the adjoining property.
The day after the fire, Anderson claimed, he and Balcombe met again – this time at a Gloria Jean’s outlet. Balcombe showed Anderson reports of the fire. “You’re all over the news,” he said, according to Anderson.
Anderson told Balcombe’s committal hearing that seeing these news reports made him feel “a bit sick in the stomach … At that point then, I knew that the shit was pretty serious.”
Balcombe, however, was pleased, according to Anderson. “He was ecstatic, he was over the moon. He wanted them all done like that.”
It was only another week before Anderson re-offended. This time he was alone. At 4am on January 18, riding his de facto’s unregistered Hunter Bobber motorcycle, he returned to Xtreme Party Hire in Tullamarine, the venue of the second arson attack. Anderson drew up alongside the business, removed some Molotov cocktails from his backpack, lit them and threw them at the windows, and then took off.
As it happened, Andrew Saliba saw the attack take place. Following the previous two attacks on his businesses he’d got into the habit of monitoring his CCTV system from home via his mobile phone. Saliba immediately notified the police, who would report “some minor sooting” around a metal panel that Saliba had placed in front of the windows a few days earlier.
Eight days later, Anderson returned to CRP Tarps in Werribee, once more throwing a Molotov cocktail through a window, which was again caught on CCTV. The following morning, owner Chamika Piyadigama again discovered only minor fire damage.
On January 29 Anderson targeted Baileys Bouncers in Warragul, a town 120 kilometres south-east of Melbourne. After parking his motorcycle outside he found he couldn’t scale the wire perimeter fence. Having gone to the effort of a 90-minute journey on his bike, however, he made the most of things by lobbing four Molotov cocktails over the fence. They dropped harmlessly into the car park. When the business’s owner, Matthew Bailey, arrived at work the next morning he saw burn marks surrounding a broken bottle in the car park and alerted police. Police later traced Anderson’s mobile phone and found it had been used in Warragul that night.
By this stage police had come to suspect the involvement of James Balcombe, and launched surveillance operations. They observed him meeting with an unknown man who would later be identified as Anderson. Seven days later, on February 13, Anderson returned for a third time to CRP Tarps in Werribee, where he was captured on CCTV smashing a window and throwing a Molotov cocktail shortly after 1am. The fire brigade was on the scene quickly and put out the fire.
The penultimate attack took place in Chandler Road, Keysborough, another south-eastern suburb of Melbourne, on February 18, 2017. Around 2.30am Anderson approached a factory housing Melbourne Sumo Party Hire, a business supplying, among other things, giant padded suits made to resemble sumo wrestlers. Though Anderson would later tell police that he heard music coming from inside (which, said Judge Hampel during his sentencing “should have served as notice that there was a real risk that somebody was inside and therefore a real risk of harm to a person as well as damage to property”), he threw a Molotov cocktail at a window. The window broke, but the firebomb dropped to the ground outside. Anderson fled. As it happened, the business’s owner, Peter Ronksley, was inside the building sleeping under the window, until startled by the crash of glass. Apart from the broken window, the only damage to his premises was scorched scoria gravel.
Balcombe, the court heard, had by this stage become aware that police had linked the attacks on party-hire businesses. It was alleged that Balcombe devised a plan both to distract attention from himself and to claim, fraudulently, an insurance payout.
More than two weeks later Anderson targeted Awesome Party Hire, Balcombe’s own business, which he operated from his home in Kangaroo Ground, a small town on Melbourne’s north-eastern fringe.
Anderson told Balcombe’s committal hearing that, some time earlier, he’d met Balcombe at his rural property to plan the firebombing of an 18-by-12-metre shed used to store Awesome Party Hire jumping castles and equipment. Anderson was taken by the aspect. “I said it was a beautiful view that he had,” recalled Anderson. “I said it was like a million-dollar view. He told me it was worth more than that. He goes, ‘It’s like a 1.2 million-dollar view’ or something, you know what I mean?”
As alleged in court, it was around 2am on the morning of March 6 when Anderson, acting on detailed instructions given to him by Balcombe, cut through a paddock at the rear of Balcombe’s property and approached the large sheet-metal shed. About 70 metres away was Balcombe’s home, where his wife and son were presumably sleeping. Balcombe was home, too. If the allegations against him are true one wonders if he was sleeping himself. Or was he lying awake listening intently for noises that would signal Anderson’s arrival? Was he waiting for explosions and the lighting up of the night sky?
Slipping inside the shed, Anderson found a number of petrol-filled jerry cans he said Balcombe had prepared for him. Anderson poured petrol inside the shed, lit it and fled.
He was unusually successful – so much so that Judge Hampel, in sentencing Anderson, remarked that the consequence of Anderson’s success could have been significantly more devastating than it was. “As anybody who took even a passing interest in the Black Saturday bushfires knows,” she said, “[Kangaroo Ground] is in a high-risk bushfire area and not far from an area that was devastated during the Black Saturday fires. This [fire] took place … in the high fire-risk season.”
Shortly after Anderson’s retreat a neighbour was awoken by explosions and saw the shed engulfed by flames. He contacted emergency services as the shed continued to burn before eventually caving in on itself. Investigators responding to the incident interviewed Balcombe and his family as the shed smouldered nearby. Balcombe told police at that time that the value of damage was approximately $1.2 million, and that the shed and contents were insured for $800,000.
Three days after the fire at Balcombe’s property, Anderson and Ransom were arrested. Smith was soon in custody as well. Under police interview all three made full admissions and, when shown CCTV footage of the many crimes, identified themselves and each other. Anderson’s smartphone was seized. On it were found photos of jumping-castle businesses targeted in the attacks and screenshots taken from the Country Fire Authority mobile-phone app containing information about fires at the victims’ addresses.
Having given assurances that he would act as a prosecution witness in the committal hearing of Balcombe, Anderson was charged and bailed. Smith and Ransom were also charged.
Several months later, Balcombe submitted an insurance claim for his lost equipment and shed.
Craig Anderson, along with his two older sisters, was raised in Greensborough by his mother, a real estate agent, after his father left when Anderson was eight. “He had no father figure in his life,” Anderson’s counsel, Sophie Parsons, told the court on the day of his plea hearing. At high school he started smoking cannabis and was introduced to an “antisocial element”. More recently, Anderson had been DJing in a Hawthorn nightclub while working days as a stonemason. He was living with his de facto and her two children from a previous relationship, but their relationship broke down and he became addicted to heroin. Later he became addicted to ice. Despite all this, Anderson did not lose the support and affection of either his mother or his partner, with whom he reconnected after short spells in prison, including one for aggravated burglary.
Judge Hampel made note of Anderson’s ability to form committed and stable relationships, and also drew the court’s attention to his early guilty plea, his cooperation with authorities and his undertaking to give evidence in pending proceedings against Balcombe. As a result, she said, Anderson was entitled to a significant reduction in his sentence.
But, she said, Anderson’s conduct was “appalling and amoral … Your dispassionate account to the police of what you did and why you did it makes chilling reading,” she said, addressing Anderson. “You apparently had no qualm of conscience about the impact of your behaviour on your victims, all people completely unknown to you.”
That he had no personal grudge against the victims compounded things, she said. “It certainly does shake one’s faith in humanity to hear of conduct like this.”
Judge Hampel brought up Anderson’s mother again in perhaps her most chastening comment. “She continues to offer her support to you in the future. She demonstrates that selfless mother’s love that so often becomes a real burden for parents when they see their children take the wrong course in life, who make decisions that have devastating consequences not just for themselves but for others, decisions that fly in the face of the family values that they were brought up to honour and to try and live up to. So for me, there is a shame that you should bear [for] the pain that you have caused your family as a result.”
Anderson was asked to stand and Judge Hampel ran through the 10 charges against him and their requisite sentences. He was to serve a total effective sentence of 11 years and nine months, with a fixed period of eight years and nine months before being eligible for parole. (This sentence was reduced, on appeal, to eight years and six months after Anderson’s lawyers argued the initial sentence was “manifestly excessive”.)
“You may remove Mr Anderson,” said Judge Hampel.
Peter Smith’s plea hearing and sentencing took place on the morning of November 24, 2017. A slight man with a closely shorn head and tattoos on his arms and legs, he sat in the dock in a pair of baggy green shorts, shin-high white socks and a white T-shirt. Sitting some distance away in the public gallery was his mother with whom he was said to be estranged. Sitting closer were Anderson’s mother and, beside her, Anderson’s de facto. On his way to the dock, Smith affectionately placed a hand on the shoulder of Anderson’s mother.
Smith’s counsel, Jo Swiney, told the court that Smith, who had previous convictions, was a former employee of Balcombe’s, but that his offending had occurred at a time in his life when he was emotionally and financially vulnerable. Work was short. He’d been cut off by Centrelink. He was broke. “Balcombe knew that and played on that,” she said. “[Smith] has all the indicators of genuine remorse.” She reminded the court that he had stopped offending after the first two attacks.
One wondered if Smith was expecting leniency. In the minutes before his sentencing began he was relaxed enough in the dock to chat with a shaggy-haired and moustachioed friend who was caring for his dog. “How’s Jedda?” Smith asked him.
Smith told the man that Port Phillip Prison was a concrete jungle “and they treat you like shit. You can’t even get a Panadol.” But, he said, “the food is good … I’ve put on 10 ks.”
Eventually Judge Hampel addressed Smith and the court. She began by acknowledging his remorse, his withdrawal early on, his cooperation with authorities and his willingness to give evidence against Balcombe, but Hampel also said Smith’s conduct was “appalling and immoral … You did it just for the money and for what really is a paltry amount of money given the harm that could be caused,” she said. It was, she continued, “base offending”. Hampel sentenced Smith to a jail term of three years and six months with a two-year non-parole period. (This sentence would be reduced, on appeal, to two years and four months.)
Smith made no initial comment, as if the judge’s words hadn’t quite sunk in. Then they did. Suddenly emotional and, in his passion, seemingly feeling that a long separation from his dog was harder to bear than an eternal one, he implored his friend as he was led away by a court official, “Put him down for me! Put him down!” He issued an anguished, drawn out cry just as he disappeared. “Fuuuck!”
If James Balcombe didn’t look all that perturbed at his committal hearing on February 6, 2018, his counsel did. With a bullish build the battle-hardened veteran Geoff Steward seemed equipped for anything, but early on day one, as he began his cross-examination of witnesses, he began mopping his brow with a handkerchief. Soon he was employing paperwork from the desk and using it to vigorously fan his face. Such are the micro-dramas that steal one’s attention during a day in court.
Under cross-examination, witnesses Andrew Saliba (Xtreme Party Hire) and Chamika Piyadigama (CRP Tarps) outlined their history with Balcombe. And their history was ugly.
Saliba told the court that in December 2016 he and Balcombe had been engaged in a “feud” that started, Saliba said, when he met Balcombe’s brother, Grant. Grant was a friend and neighbour of Saliba’s, and when Grant fell on hard times, Saliba stepped in to offer help. He then met Balcombe through Grant and he believes that Balcombe got the idea for his own jumping-castle business only after seeing jumping castles in Saliba’s garage. He said that Balcombe soon turned nasty and was sending him threatening messages through eBay messaging and via emails, of which Saliba had made copies. (There were 12 pages of them in the trial documents, including “one where there’s reference to ‘wog boy’ ” and another “that has the word ‘wank’ ”, as Steward described when cross-examining Saliba.)
It was a complicated knot of grievances that took some effort to unravel. At one point Steward ceded to the magistrate’s offer and removed his jacket, exposing his sweat-soaked shirt to the gallery.
Piyadigama then took to the stand. He explained that he used to repair Balcombe’s jumping castles, and during this time heard Balcombe’s claim that he “wanted to be number one in the industry”. Piyadigama said Balcombe had undercut his competitors, and had spoken to him about paying $1000 to an “Asian male” to manipulate Google search results to ensure Balcombe’s business came up first. Piyadigama told the court that when he and Balcombe were discussing the various party-hire people in Melbourne, Balcombe referred to Saliba as “an enemy of his trade”, and that Saliba had copied Balcombe’s business ideas. In a manner Piyadigama described as “jocose” he said Balcombe once said to him, “If you do his [Saliba’s] work I’ll come after you.”
Anderson appeared as a witness, too, via video link from prison. Steward concentrated much energy on Balcombe’s precise instructions from when he allegedly commissioned Anderson. “When you met him the first time, you weren’t sure whether he said that he wanted them hit, burnt or whatever?” asked Steward.
“Yeah, he just wanted them hit – by that he meant burnt,” replied Anderson.
“That’s what you took it to mean?”
“Yeah. Well yeah, that’s what was discussed. As I said, he wanted me to go in through the roof, he wanted me to use petrol and he wanted them burnt.”
“Do you know why you didn’t say that to the police when you were doing that record of interview, that he specifically told you that he wanted them burnt as opposed to hit or whatever?”
“I probably didn’t feel like I had to tell them that, considering they were getting me on arson charges …”
“Everything is gone!”
These were the first words Michael Andrew said to his wife, Aline, after he’d gone to their business, A & A Jumping Castles, in the early hours of January 11, 2017. Alerted by a security alarm, he’d left home to check it and arrived to find their warehouse consumed by fire.
It was left unsaid how long it took him and his wife to discover that their insurance policy did not include fire.
Standing self-consciously in court, wearing workboots, Michael Andrew held a victim impact statement in a tight grip, like it was a life raft in turbulent seas.
With his head bowed he started by putting his family’s loss into context. He told the court that he was raised in poverty, how from nothing he and Aline had worked their way to a position where they employed 20 people. They had achieved financial security. But this came with sacrifices, he said, such as having less time than he would have liked with his son and daughter.
Before the fire, the business did up to 30 hires a weekend. Now, having lost almost every castle, it was just two – not enough to pay wages. They had to let their staff go. He and Aline had to sell their home and cash in their superannuation to survive.
As he described these events to the court he was drawn into the depths. With his words catching in his throat he was disorientated and bereft until Aline rose and, with a hand on his elbow, caught him and guided him to his seat.
Aline’s eyes were red and she looked exhausted as she stepped up to say her piece. In a clear and strong voice she recounted the effect the fire had on her husband, “a good guy who didn’t have enemies”. “He was inconsolable,” she recalled. “His voice, his face. He was shattered and that made me feel vulnerable.”
In the aftermath of the fire she became fearful. The fire had destroyed her sense of safety. Would her home be next? Insomnia set in. “If a person is capable of arson what else is he capable of?” she said.
She recounted watching “sickening” CCTV footage of the fire being started and taking hold. “Eight seconds is all it took to destroy 18 years of our livelihood,” she said. “We want the defendants to know that their actions have had and will continue to have a devastating effect on our lives.”
And so she sat down again, the Andrews’ moving cameo a gut punch to any notion that the multiple failures of the arsonists had rendered to this affair a veneer of high farce. Certainly no one in the court was smiling. Not Anderson, not Balcombe and not Judge Hampel, who, upon seeing Aline Andrew retake her seat, commented, “What a tragedy.”
James Balcombe was committed to stand trial on 10 counts of alleged criminal damage by fire. His trial has not yet occurred, and his warrant is still outstanding.