The grieving daughters of a man who died after his neighbor stuffed a potato into his gas flue have spoken for the first time – slamming the “joke” sentence imposed on their father’s killer.
Life changed forever for Rosie and Nicole Horner in December 2015, when their beloved dad, Michael Horner, 48, was found dead in his home in Newlyn, Cornwall.
At first, his death was shrouded by mystery, but Rosie, 22, and Nicole, 29, were soon dealt a second blow when police launched a criminal investigation, after finding a raw potato stuffed into Michael’s boiler flue, while searching his home.
Eventually, Daniel Burgess, then 39 – a neighbor of Michael’s – was charged with manslaughter, which he admitted and was jailed for two years and eight months.
During his sentencing, Exeter Crown Court heard how a feud between the two men had escalated after Burgess became convinced Michael, who was disabled, had stolen his pre-paid gas cards, preventing him from heating his home.
To exact revenge, he stuffed a potato into Michael’s boiler flue and squirted superglue into his locks – leading to his death from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Pub worker Nicole, of Harwich, Essex, who was 18 weeks pregnant when her dad was killed, said:
“It’s devastating enough to be told your dad has died, but to then get that call saying that somebody had done this to him was horrendous.
“The police investigation meant his body couldn’t be released to us as planned, so we had to wait 19 weeks to lay him to rest. In the end, I buried my dad at 37 weeks pregnant. Going through this has ruined our family’s innocence.”
Nicole and Rosie enjoyed a happy childhood with Michael. Working hard on the railways, he would give them pocket money every Friday to go and buy a treat.
And though, after splitting with their mom around 15 years ago, he left the family home in Essex, moving to Cornwall, where he is originally from, he stayed in regular contact with his daughters.
Then, in around 2015, Michael was diagnosed with Huntington’s, which is caused by a faulty gene and results in the brain becoming gradually damaged over time.
His deteriorating health taking its toll, Nicole and Rosie heard from him less often and it would not be unusual for them to go for several weeks without seeing him.
“He wouldn’t always answer his phone, but that was just him. Whenever we did speak, he sounded absolutely fine and gave us no reason to worry,” said Nicole.
Sadly, the girls were blissfully unaware of the escalating feud over the heating that was causing increasing tension between Burgess and their dad.
Then, Christmas 2015 rolled around and, as Rosie and Nicole both had to work, they stayed in Essex, with Michael spending the day with friends down in Cornwall.
“We did call Dad a few times but didn’t hear from him. We weren’t especially worried. He wasn’t meant to drink much with the medication he was on, but we figured, as it was Christmas, maybe he’d had a few drinks and crashed out.”
But then, on 29 December, after friends who had not seen Michael in a few days raised the alarm, police entered his home – finding him lifeless on the living room floor, with the thermostat turned up to 60, but the house feeling freezing.
A family member who lived nearby phoned Nicole to break the news.
— The Good Grief Trust (@goodgrieftrust) June 24, 2018
Speaking of the life-changing call, she continued:
“I just couldn’t process it. I hung up and called my mom. I asked her to tell Rosie, as I couldn’t bear to do it myself.
“I had no idea what had happened. I tried to shield my daughter from it, but she isn’t silly, she knew something was going on.
“One night she found me crying and asked why, and I had to tell her my daddy had died. A child should never have to hear that.”
Eventually, the police investigation began to paint a harrowing picture of the events that had led to Michael’s death and, in February 2017, Burgess, of Chywoone Avenue, Newlyn, admitted his crimes and was jailed.
In Exeter Crown Court, his lawyer noted that he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, stressing that his only intention was to stop the boiler working, not to cause harm.
During sentencing, Judge Geoffrey Mercer QC, told Burgess:
“You accept your unlawful and dangerous act in interfering with the flue of Mr Horner’s boiler in the way you did caused his death. He had serious health issues and you knew of his disability and vulnerability.”
“Mr Horner was your neighbor and had been your friend but you had fallen out and you acted to get your own back against a perceived grievance that he was the cause of the loss of your heating.
“You did what you did deliberately. You went to considerable lengths and you knew what you were doing. Of crucial importance is that you had no intention of doing any physical harm. Your plan was simply to stop his boiler from working and make him cold. I accept your remorse is genuine and your culpability is at the lower end.”
But, while Judge Mercer accepted Burgess’ remorse as genuine, Rosie and Nicole, who watched the sentencing via video link, do not agree.
They remain hurt over what they see as a very light sentence, which they say has made them lose faith in the justice system.
The sisters are speaking out just as a landmark case – which could affect property sale laws – has been launched by Jason Stevens and Michelle Smith, who are suing the previous owner of their new home, claiming he failed to inform them about a nightmare neighbor.
“I hope the law changes to protect people better, as Daniel Burgess has taken so much from Rosie and I, from the rest of our family and from our dad – and what right did he have? What right does any one person have to take another’s life?”
“We don’t believe he’s sorry. In our minds, it should be life for a life, so two years in prison feels like a joke. When we heard the sentence read out, we just walked out. We couldn’t stand to hear any more – what were we supposed to say to that?
“We have lost all faith in the justice system. We have a life sentence of our own now, dealing with all the difficult anniversaries. Christmas, especially, is completely different now. I’ll take my tree down on Boxing Day, as it feels wrong leave it up any longer.
“It is very hard to live with, knowing we can’t change anything. Dad was a nice, kind man. He didn’t deserve any of this.”