Property millionaire who filmed burning Grenfell Tower effigy cleared after key evidence hidden
A property millionaire who filmed a Grenfell Tower effigy being burned on a bonfire has been cleared by a judge after key evidence was hidden from defence lawyers in a string of “appalling” failures.
Paul Bussetti, 47, was accused of causing public outrage when a video of the bonfire was posted on YouTube in November last year, showing the cardboard model of the doomed tower going up in flames at a private party.
Prosecutors argued the video was grossly offensive and fuelled by racist humour, insisting black and Muslim occupants of the tower were depicted in figures on the side of the model.
However, Mr Bussetti told Westminster magistrates court today the incident and video was intended as a “joke” and had been misunderstood by members of the public, as the figures on the side were actually mocking versions of his group of friends.
As the judge was preparing to give her verdict in the case, following two days of evidence and at the end of a nine-month criminal investigation, it dramatically emerged that two key police interviews that supported the defence case had never been disclosed to Mr Bussetti’s legal team.
The maker of the effigy, Steve Bull, and another partygoer, Peter Hancock, had both told Met officers just days after the controversial bonfire that the figures on the model were intended to depict their group of friends, rather than actual victims of the Grenfell tragedy.
Mr Hancock also revealed to police that he had filmed the bonfire himself and send the clip to friends on WhatsApp, but had faced no criminal prosecution and was not called to give any evidence.
Defence barrister Mark Summers QC said in light of the revelations, it was “not even clear that the video on YouTube and in the national media was Mr Bussetti’s video”.
During cross-examination, it was suggested that Mr Bussetti and the host of the party, Clifford Smith, had “created” the claim that the figures on the effigy were their friends.
Mr Summers told the court it was “utterly outrageous that anyone knowing this sat through the cross-examination you heard today and let it continue”, bemoaning the fact two police interviews supporting Mr Bussetti’s case had not emerged until the trial was almost over.
Chief Magistrate Emma Arbuthnot said she was “appalled” by the state of the disclosure in the case, and demanded an explanation for the failings from Scotland Yard and the CPS.
Clearing Mr Bussetti of the charge of sending an offensive communication, she said the bonfire was in “colossal bad taste” but said the prosecution had failed to prove the case against him.
“I can’t be sure the video relied on by the Crown is the one taken by the defendant”, she said. “I can’t be sure the cut-out images are not the defendant and his friends.”
She said the case could have been thrown out as an abuse of process due to the disclosure failures, adding: “Once someone is charged with an offence, there is a tendency to take the foot off the pedal and not to review cases much afterwards.”
Judge Arbuthnot said it was only the vigilance of prosecutor Philip Stott that had averted a “potential miscarriage of justice”, as she demanded an full explanation of what had gone wrong.
Mr Bussetti, a father-of-two who owns a lucrative property portfolio, filmed the Grenfell effigy going up in flames at the event on November 3 last year, and sent the clip to two WhatsApp groups containing a total of 20 people.
He insisted the figures on the model were of his friends, and he sent the video to people who “understood the joke”.
“The majority of the people in that (WhatsApp) group were at the party, they all found it funny, we all found it funny”, he said. “It was pictures of us on the box.”
He said it was “certainly not” genuine Grenfell victims on the effigy, and argued public outrage at the video was based on a misunderstanding of the “joke”.
Mr Bussetti said one figure with red hair was a friend whose nickname is “Ginge”, another figure with thick eyebrows was his friend whose nickname is “eyebrows”, and a third was the host of the party, Clifford Smith, who is known as “The Ghost”.
“He tries his hardest to get a sun tan and he just comes back white”, said Bussetti, denying the claim that the figure is a baby.
Prosecutors claimed one of the figures was a Muslim woman in a niqab, and one attendee of the party in November last year is heard on the video saying: “Look, little ninjas getting it at the moment”.
But Mr Bussetti today insisted the figure was actually Mr Smith’s son: “When he was younger he used to do martial arts and called himself ‘ninja’, and we called him a ninja.”
He added that he himself was on the model, depicted with big ears as he had the nickname ‘Pluggy’, and Mr Bull had also included himself with a large nose.
During the trial, a string of racist messages Mr Bussetti had received and shared on WhatsApp were shown, including offensive jokes about Muslims, black people, and involving the KKK.
Asked directly if he is a racist, Mr Bussetti twice replied: “No”.
Mr Summers told the court: “It’s a group of frankly juvenile men – name calling, group skinny dipping, sharing pornography, name calling and when that doesn’t do it anymore, simple foul language.”
But he insisted the public had misunderstood the effigy “joke” which Mr Bussetti had never intended to become public.
Judge Arbuthnot said the racist and abusive messages “showed the sort of person he is” but were not enough to “fil the holes” in the prosecution case.
When Mr Bussetti first handed himself in to police in November, during intense publicity around the video, he admitted the clip was “horrible” and added: “It’s just sick, there was no purpose.”
He did not mention that his friends were depicted on the model, but told the court today he was
Bussetti, from South Norwood, denied and was acquitted of sending an offensive communication, under the 2003 Communications Act.