They called firefighters – but it was too late. The shop was gutted.
Crown proecutor Jana Epati painted a picture of the fire in her opening statement to High Court Judge Colin Doherty and a 12-member jury.
Someone had deliberately set fire to the building, Epati said – but there was no form of evidence to identify who was responsible.
Eight days later on June 22, just a kilometre down the road, a Betela Tex Mart employee was spending the night at the shop while his boss was in overseas.
He had fallen asleep, when he was woken by a loud noise at 9.30pm. He came out of the bedroom to discover fire spreading through the store.
He fled across the street with his phone and called the authorities.
When police and fire investigated, said Epati, it became apparent that the fire began at floor level. They initially thought the cause might be electrical. But when ashes from the floor were tested in New Zealand, they revealed there was kerosene present – a product that wasn’t sold at Tex Mart.
Police knew they had an arsonist on their hands – but again, there were no eye witnesses to identify the culprit.
Public alarm climaxed two weeks later on Sunday, July 8, when just before midnight, a neighbour heard the alarm go off at the big Raro Mart in Avarua. About 20 minutes later there was an enormous “bang”, and when the neighbour went outside they saw the big warehouse was ablaze.
Fire fighters arrived at the scene at around 12.18am, to face the biggest blaze most of them had ever seen.
The fire burned until daylight. When the flames were finally put out, investigators discovered it had started in the administration area – but yet again there was neither forensic evidence nor an eye witness to identify who was responsible.
Epati said: “The cause was highly suspicious.”
In court, the prosecutors laid out the long and detailed investigation that led to them charging 18-year-old David Tonorio, who is in the dock in a trial expected to last nearly two weeks.
At the heart of the Crown’s case, Tonorio is alleged to have confesses the arsons to four friends.
“In relation to Friendly Mart he told one of his friends that he entered the store by making a hole in front of the roof,” Epati said.
The police had not known how the offender entered Friendly Mart – but when they examined the scene a second time, they discovered there was indeed a hole on the roof that was made before the fire started.
Furthermore, Tonorio allegedly told one of his friends of climbing a tree to get into Raro Mart.
His defence lawyer Norman George rejects that, saying the Crown is reliant on the unreliable testimony of Tonorio’s four friends. “They are wrong; … they are barking up the wrong tree.”
His client, Tonorio, was arrested on October 11 and chose not to make a statement.
“This was his right,” said Jana Epati, “but he did tell the police that he was not responsible, he was home with his family on the nights in question, and what people were saying was ‘bullshit’.
“At the end of this trial you will determine whether what the defendant told his friends was true.”
The Crown says the alleged arsons have generated a lot of ill-feeling and speculation in the community.