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My mum was wrongly jailed for killer arson attack and turned to heroin… nurse’s chilling words on her death bed haunt me

IT was an evil attack that sent shockwaves across the nation.

A mum and her two young daughters died in a house fire after petrol was poured through their letterbox followed by a lit match in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, on October 11, 1995.

MirrorpixAnnette Hewins pictured after her conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1999[/caption]

MEDIA WALESThe house on the Gurnos Estate where Diane Jones and her daughters were killed in an arson attack[/caption]

But the tragedy didn’t end there. Local mum-of-four Annette Hewins was wrongly convicted of the arson attack, and served 18 months of a 13-year prison sentence for it.

She was freed on appeal in 1999, but the consequences on the innocent mum’s life were catastrophic.

After becoming a heroin addict in prison, Annette struggled with mental health issues and died aged just 51, in February 2017.

Now, speaking publicly for the first time in a new BBC Sounds podcast – Wrongly Accused: The Annette Hewins Story – her eldest daughter Nicole Jacob tells her tragic story.

She says: “Despite mum’s conviction being overturned, she never recovered from being wrongly accused of the deaths of a mother and two innocent children… She lived under a cloud of suspicion from the wider community who all believed she was guilty and lived in fear of revenge attacks on her and her family.”

Diane Jones, 21, and her daughters Shauna, two, and 13-month-old Sarah Jane were asleep at their home on the Gurnos estate when the attack took place around 2am.

Neighbours – including Diane’s sister Mary – woke to the sight of the house in flames and knew she was trapped inside with her daughters.

Following the fire, police concluded it had been started by Annette’s niece Donna Clarke, then 27, who had an affair with Diane’s partner Shaun Hibberd.

AthenaDiane Jones holding her daughter before they died in a house fire at their home[/caption]

AthenaShauna and Sarah Jane, the two young children who died in the fire in 1995[/caption]

It has been reported that Diane threatened to expose Donna’s affair to her partner Simon Owens.

It was alleged that Annette, known as Nettie, then 31, had bought the petrol used to start the fire from a local service station.

A third woman, Denise Sullivan, then 24, was said to have given Donna false alibi.

During questioning by police, she later changed her account.

However, there was no evidence to put any of the three women at the scene at the time of the fire.

In reality, Annette had given Donna – who didn’t have a car – a lift to the local Esso garage to buy tokens for her electricity meter, not to buy petrol.

According to Annette, the police had “tunnel vision”, believing Donna’s motive was jealousy born out of her struggling to accept that Shaun went back to his wife.

She claimed in an interview: “They convinced themselves Donna was responsible and didn’t pursue other leads properly. In my view, it was easier to blame a jilted lover than open a can of worms about the drugs problem on the estate.”

They convinced themselves Donna was responsible and didn’t pursue other leads properly. In my view, it was easier to blame a jilted lover

Annette Hewins

Speaking on the podcast, freelance journalist Bob Woffinden, who investigated the case, says: “One of the main areas of concern is that there were other suspects, and the police knew that because they had been given the information by informers on the Gurnos estate.

“We do know there were lots of other grade one suspects involved in this case and there were lots of other avenues that I think were much more persuasive.

“The police should have been directing their enquiries along totally different avenues right from the beginning.”

Donna Clarke (pictured) was found guilty of arson with intent to endanger life, but cleared of murdering the three victimsPA:Press Association

Annette – then still married to her husband – was three months pregnant with son Joshua when she was arrested. She gave birth to her fifth child while in custody on remand awaiting trial.

Her son Nathan was five, Nicole was four, and Shannon was 14 months. 

Nicole says: “Much of what my mum went through I only have sketchy details about.

“It’s not surprising since I was only four years old when she was arrested.”

Much of what my mum went through I only have sketchy details about. It’s not surprising since I was only four years old when she was arrested

Nicole Jacob

Following a trial in 1997, all three women were acquitted of murder, but Donna and Annette were found guilty of arson with intent to endanger life, and jailed for 20 years and 13 years respectively.

Denise, who was also acquitted of arson, was sentenced to four years imprisonment for attempting to pervert the course of justice. It was later reduced by six months on appeal.

In February 1999, Annette and Donna’s convictions were quashed after forensic tests proved that the petrol bought by Annette was not the same kind used in the arson attack.

Denise’s conviction was never quashed due to inconsistencies in her story – despite the fact that the person she had been accused of giving a false alibi to had been cleared.

Case ‘still open’

AthenaDiane Jones’ sister Mary (centre) with relatives and friends by the stone memorial, where Diane and her two daughters died in a house fire[/caption]

AthenaFamily and friends held a vigil in October 2022 to mark 27 years since the tragedy[/caption]

To date, the fatal arson attack remains unsolved.

Speaking in 2022, Diane’s sister Mary, a mum-of-three, said: “Now I feel the same way as our mum. I want justice for Diane and her girls.

“The killer or killers must still be out there and the police say the case is still open.”

Even after her conviction was quashed, Annette continued to fight for justice.

She pursued a civil case against police for malicious prosecution and abuse of power, but dropped it in 2006 after cops conceded she was not involved.

Speaking at the time, she said: “I’m really over the moon. Although I was cleared in the court of appeal in 1999, the police still hadn’t acknowledged in the last seven years that I was innocent and that I had nothing at all to do with the arson.

The killer or killers must still be out there and the police say the case is still open

Diane’s sister Mary

“That is what I wanted more than anything.”

Nicole says: “She always talked about writing a book about the miscarriage of justice she suffered.

“Sadly her poor mental health never allowed this to happen.”

Annette died less than 24 hours after being detained at a mental health unit at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. She had an undiagnosed 90 per cent blockage of one of her main arteries, which led to sudden cardiac arrest.

At an inquest in 2019, Coroner Greame Hughes told how there were failures by individuals involved in her care, but these did not cause her death.

Chilling words on death bed

Annette was being treated for heroin withdrawal and was displaying psychotic symptoms throughout her time in hospital.

Nicole says: “In my opinion, this poor standard of care was a tragically recurring theme in my mum’s life, when institutions meant to protect her failed her.

“My mum’s death seems the inevitable conclusion of her being wrongfully accused of a horrible crime two decades before.”

She adds that Annette had never taken hard drugs before she was sent to prison, and only turned to heroin to cope with the mental anguish of being wrongly convicted and separated from her family.

“Given the harsh way her world had been unjustly destroyed, could you blame her?” Nicole says.

My mum’s death seems the inevitable conclusion of her being wrongfully accused of a horrible crime two decades before

Nicole Jacob

“I remember at the hospital the nurses appeared surprised that their patient had five children who loved her very much.

“Perhaps they judged her for being a drug addict.

“But one thing that will disturb me forever; I knelt next to my mum’s body, a nurse put a hand on my arm and said, ‘Your mum just couldn’t live with herself, could she?’

“At the time I felt confused, unable to work out what she meant.

“Did the nurse think mum couldn’t live with herself as a drug addict? Or that she was actually guilty of that terrible murder?”

Happy memories

Nicole says her earliest memories of her mum were happy ones. Although her parents divorced, they remained friends.

During the podcast Nicole goes to meet her dad, who suffered an accident 20 years ago and now lives at an assisted living complex, to find out more about her mum.

He says Annette always wanted to help people, adding: “She spoilt you all rotten.”

Nicole, now a mum herself, recalls: “My mum was always very over the top and wanted to make things special… She just loved the family life.

“I don’t really remember Christmas before prison, but I’ve seen the photos and it’s really emotional to look at that because you see how perfect everything looks… It’s sad because it’s such a loss.

“That person who made that home feeling, and put all that love and attention in, was taken away from us.

“My whole life, even into adulthood, I always thought that we would have this happy ending, this family would come back together, my mum would be ok and she would be herself again.”

MirrorpixAnnette pictured with four of her children including Nicole (centre)[/caption]

She adds: “And when she died that was the ultimate blow because it really hit home this dream that I’d had since childhood was 100 per cent not going to happen now.”

Nicole says information about her mum online “is often distorted and sketchy”, so making a podcast is her way of setting the record straight.

“My siblings and I have never talked about mum publicly,” she says.

“The drug abuse became worse after dad’s accident, and all of us went into care.

“Even when we are together today, we are reluctant to turn our conversations back to the dark days.

“When I thought about sharing mum’s story, my main hesitation would be how my family would react.”

Nicole’s younger sister Sophia says in the podcast: “Sometimes I do feel very hesitant to talk about it and to open those doors.

“I think the main thing that changed my mind was knowing how much our mum wanted to be heard and how she always wanted her story to be told… She had such an awful life, which meant that all five of us, everything we went through, could have been prevented.”

The first two episodes of Wrongly Accused: The Annette Hewins Story are available on BBC Sounds now.

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