LONDON -- A father was sentenced to life in jail Thursday for starting a fire that killed six of his own children as part of a disastrous plot to frame his former mistress, in a horrific case that has prompted an emotional debate about Britain’s welfare system.
Rui Vieira / AP
Mick Philpott and wife Mairead.
Mick Philpott, his wife, Mairead, and his friend Paul Mosley, were convicted of manslaughter for starting a house blaze that took the lives of the couple’s children Jayden, 5, Jesse, 6, Jack, 8, John, 9, Jade, 10, and 13-year-old Duwayne.
Unemployed Philpott – a father of 17 children by five women – intended to “rescue” his family and blame the fire on his mistress, Lisa Willis, 28, who was seeking court custody of the five children they had together.
When his plan went tragically wrong, the 56-year-old lied to protect himself - even shedding crocodile tears at a police news conference. But detectives quickly uncovered the truth.
The shocking case, in the central England town of Derby, made for emotive headlines in Britain’s newspaper’s Wednesday. “Pure evil” said The Mirror, while The Sun on its front page called Philpott a “child-killing b*****d.”
Steve Cotterill, Assistant Chief Constable of Derbyshire police, said the fire plot was “the most evil act I have ever known” and had led to “a complete and utter waste of six young and innocent lives.”
Remarkably, Philpott was already a hate figure in Britain, reveling in notoriety on television where he was portrayed as a real-life version of the social underclass featured in the drama series, "Shameless".
He was pilloried for demanding a larger government home for his rapidly-expanding family. He had appeared on the daytime TV tabloid talk show, “The Jeremy Kyle Show,” alongside both his wife and his mistress to face demands that he have a vasectomy.
Both women for many years lived with Philpott, sharing his affections. Willis slept in a camping trailer parked on the tiny front lawn, while wife Mairead stayed in the house. On more than one occasion they were simultaneously pregnant.
His deceit over the subsequent tragedy was unmasked when detectives noted his behavior did not fit the pattern of a grieving parent – he was observed singing Elvis’ Suspicious Minds during a karaoke session in a local bar – and began monitoring phone calls with his co-accused.
Mark St George / Rex Features via AP
The parents who killed six children in a house fire were sentenced at Nottingham Crown Court, England, Thursday.
Philpott had a history of horrific domestic violence and bullying, but in this instance his crime was motivated by money: Already the recipient of welfare checks owing to his unemployment, Philpott was entitled to further state payments for each of the children under the roof of his rented public home.
In total, he was in legitimate receipt of more than $90,000 a year in government handouts.
“He just wanted a house full of kids and the benefit money that brings,” prosecution lawyer Richard Latham said during the seven-week trial.
That aspect of the case has further inflamed public anger, coming at a time when austerity-crippled Britain is bitterly divided over welfare payments.
The U.K.’s Conservative-led coalition on Monday introduced sweeping new limits to welfare checks and other government assistance schemes in a bid to save billions of dollars from the national deficit.
The liberal Guardian newspaper gravely characterized Monday’s cuts as “the day Britain changed,” but the government believes the moves have the support of many British taxpayers who are dismayed at some of the welfare checks paid out to large families. The language of the debate has divided the sides into “strivers” versus “skivers,” and “benefit recipients” versus “hard-working families.”
On Wednesday, the Daily Mail described Philpott on its front page as “The vile product of welfare UK” – a headline that drew criticism.
“There are, and have always been, a small minority of individuals capable of breathtaking cruelty,” wrote liberal commentator Owen Jones in The Independent. “The Philpott case relates in no way to people on benefits in this country.”
Derby City Council launched a review of its child welfare service in the wake of Tuesday’s verdict, amid suggestions that it should have intervened to remove the children from Philpott’s care.
However, Ann Widdecombe, a former Conservative minister who made a television documentary in which she tried to persuade Philpott to get a job and stop claiming welfare, said Wednesday: “This was very much a one-off. You cannot blame teachers or social services.
“When I visited, the children were clean, they were well-fed, they were not playing truant. There is no doubt he was using these children as a meal-ticket, but that doesn’t explain this act of wickedness."
“You cannot blame this tragedy on the benefits system," adding that Brits must "keep our heads.”
This story was originally published on Wed Apr 3, 2013 2:02 PM EDT