Murder victim Norma Bell was strangled before fire was started in her home, court heard

Norma Bell
Norma Bell

A widow is alleged to have died before a fire was started in her home, a murder trial jury was told.

The body of Norma Bell, 79, was pulled from her burning home in Westbourne Road, Hartlepool, by firefighters.

Gareth Dack

Gareth Dack

A jury on the second day of the murder trial of Gareth Dack heard Mrs Bell died up to five hours before the blaze.

Home Office pathologist Dr Jennifer Bolton, who carried out a post mortem examination, told Teesside Crown Court: "I was aware of the circumstances in which Mrs Bell's body was found.

"My examination found no evidence of soot in Mrs Bell's mouth, throat or airways.

"Any person breathing during a fire in a confined space would breathe in soot.

Police at the scene

Police at the scene

"It is therefore possible to conclude Mrs Bell was dead before the fire started."

The court heard Mrs Bell died from strangulation.

"There was a ligature tightly wound around her neck," added Dr Bolton. "It was a thin cable, like one used to charge a mobile phone or similar device.

"There was also evidence of manual strangulation, the most likely scenario being manual pressure was applied first, then the ligature.

"Chest injuries to Mrs Bell are consistent with someone kneeling on her, as they would when attempting to strangle her.

"Injuries to her face indicate she may have been involved in a scuffle, a minor altercation, but she was not beaten up.

"There was no evidence of a sexual assault."

Mrs Bell's body was discovered by firefighters called to deal with a fire at her home on the morning of April 3.

In a statement read to the jury, Stranton station firefighter Anna Huntington said: "We were aware there may be someone in the property.

"I entered using breathing apparatus, there was thick black smoke and a fire in a downstairs room.

"Feeling my way forward into the room on my hands and knees I touched a leg.

"I gave it a little tug and felt it was very stiff.

"I said to a colleague over the radio that I had found the casualty and that rigor mortis had set in."

Dack, 33, of Windermere Road, Hartlepool, denies murdering Mrs Bell between April 2 and 3, last year.

He also denies arson being reckless as whether life would be endangered.

The prosecution claim Dack needed money, and went to Mrs Bell to steal from her having borrowed money from her in the past.

Dack's DNA was found at the scene, which he said was because he had been to the house to do jobs for Mrs Bell.

Christopher Tehrani QC, prosecuting, told the jury Mrs Bell was an alert and clever woman who had the support of a close family, and no obvious need for anyone else to do jobs for her.

Mr Tehrani said the jury could be sure, after having heard the evidence, Dack was motivated by his need for money and he is guilty of the 'cruel and unnecessary' murder of Mrs Bell.

The trial resumes on Monday and is expected to last up to two weeks.