The Armidale Club fire: Police suspend investigations, owner Kate Richards fights for answers

Five years ago, one of the most popular nightclubs in Armidale burnt to the ground, on the morning of September 16, 2016.

Six months after the fire, the club's owner left Armidale in a state of shock, carrying a debt of more than $300,000. And she is still fighting for answers.

The cause of the fire was found to be deliberate, but after two coronial inquests and a senate estimates review following a second police investigation in 2019, the perpetrator was never brought to justice.

Police now say the investigation has been suspended indefinitely unless fresh evidence comes to light.

Kate Richards owned The Armidale Club, with Allen St James, at 91 Beardy Street, which is now the site of a new government premises, housing Armidale's Centrelink and Medicare offices, and the relocated Animal Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA).

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Ms Richards fought back tears when she spoke to The Armidale Express this week and said the event had 'totally changed the course of her life'.

"I still pay debts directly related to the fire," she said.

"I was never able to get back on my feet after it, and I've just had to take whatever job I could just to get by.

"I'm still stuck in it while everyone else got to walk away. I've had some amazing conversations with senior bureaucrats, and they've said to me I need to understand that I was just collateral damage and that I need to accept that."

Following an inquest in Armidale Coroner's Court, coroner Michael Holmes delivered his findings, ruling the fire was deliberate, but he was unable to determine who poured the petrol and set fire to the building.

Ms Richards said she believed the arson was to make way for a lucrative government development, the relocation of the APVMA. But police, who investigated the claim, have said there was no evidence to support that.

Following Ms Richard's allegations, the investigation was reactivated in January 2019. The police made new lines of inquiry, in relation to the tender process.

Then in July 2019, Ms Richards launched an online fundraiser to cover her legal fees to establish a Supreme Court action against parties connected to the development.

"I've never been compensated," Ms Richards said.

Acting Detective Sergeant Matthew Robertson of Armidale police was the second-in-command of the original inquiry and led the 2019 investigation seeking information from the federal agriculture department about its tender process.

He said the case was officially suspended on February 20, last year, and there was no evidence to suggest the relocation of the APVMA had anything to do with the fire.

"Following a number of concerns raised by the licensee Kate Richards, the state coroner Magistrate O'Sullivan made an application for a full review and a fresh inquiry, and the investigation was reopened in 2019," A/Det Sgt Robertson said.

"I reviewed the case and looked into the theories which were put forward and discussed in federal parliament."

Via a video conference with Magistrate O'Sullivan, A/Det Sgt Robertson informed the state coroner there was nothing to suggest the fire was caused to facilitate the building being considered in the tender process for what is now the APVMA building.

"In our opinion, the tender process is very fragile, and the fire to vacate the land would be an unlikely risk to take as being the accepted offer is not guaranteed," A/Det Sgt Robertson said.

"With the exception of one chance meeting, there were no known links between the building owner and any member of the federal government or official involved in the tender process that would give the owner advanced knowledge or position of the tender process and the owner had limited involvement in the subsequent tender process."

A/Det Sgt Robertson said there was also nothing new to link any other persons to the cause of the fire.

"We were able to nominate who we thought was responsible for the fire, but while the coroner accepted the fire was deliberately lit, she did not find enough evidence to name that suspect," A/Det Sgt Robertson said.

"That was our original opinion following the initial investigation, and there was no other link to any other person that changed that opinion."

However, Ms Richards said she intends to keep 'fighting for justice'.

"I've got consultants and lawyers working on it with me, but I don't know why I have to do it."

One of the consultants, Elaine Abery, previously worked for the Commonwealth government in public policy and since 2018 has run her own business to help people access better government process through advocacy and public policy.

"What we are trying to do is see if there is something Kate can get from the government," Ms Abery said.

"When Kate wrote to them and explained at the time that she had rights, they should have investigated that and checked the facts before they made a decision."

Ms Abery said it is unclear if Ms Richards is eligible for compensation.

"Kate just wants some sort of acknowledgment; most people just want to be heard and have it acknowledged that bad stuff happened."

Five years on Ms Richards says she will keep doing whatever she needs to do to get justice.

"It's been a journey, but I've worn a pretty phenomenal cost," she said.

This story 'I was just collateral damage': Five years since fire destroyed club first appeared on The Armidale Express.