PERTH, July 11 – A principal burned down a school in remote Western Australia and then set fire to its replacement to cover his tracks after hundreds of credit card frauds and equipment thefts, a court has heard.
John Michael McHale, 50, of Floreat, is charged with three counts of arson and three counts of stealing as a servant, following the chain of events which began in 2006.
McHale was the principal of the Meekatharra School of the Air, which provided education to children in remote parts of the state, when two fires within two weeks left the fibro and steel structure in ruins.
Then in 2008, the school’s temporary new home in Geraldton was also damaged by fire – which investigators determined was suspicious.
At the start of his District Court trial in Perth, a jury was told McHale was accused of starting all three fires to hide theft of school funds and property.
The court heard McHale had earlier pleaded guilty to 266 charges of theft and fraud, involving thousands of dollars.
It was alleged he set the fires in an attempt to destroy financial records that could have incriminated him.
When police searched McHale’s house years after allegations of a separate offence, they found an iPod, cash, an Olympus camera, two laptops, another camera, a TV, a cordless phone, kitchen appliances and oil heaters that had all belonged to the school.
Defence lawyer Laurie Levy said McHale had abused his position of trust with the frauds but his client denied starting the fires and stealing the equipment.
Levy said the the items were in McHale’s house because he had been preparing for a school camp.
Described as one of the world’s biggest schools – spanning 540,000 sq km – the Meekatharra School of the Air only reopened fully in 2011, in a new building that cost $3.7 million.
The trial, before Justice Brian O’Neal, is scheduled to last two weeks.