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Itinerant Fruit Picker Convicted of Torching Australian Youth Hostel - 2002-03-18

An itinerant fruit picker convicted of torching a youth hostel in northern Australia killing 15 people has been sentenced to life in prison. The 38-year-old drifter will spend at least 20 years behind bars.

Justice Peter Dutney presiding over what he called the worst case of arson in Queensland state history told Robert Long his callousness was beyond belief. He sentenced Long to life imprisonment for the murder of two young Australian travelers and to 15 years for arson. He ordered Long to serve at least 20 years of his sentence before he would be considered for parole.

Long was found guilty last Friday of murder and arson for setting ablaze a youth hostel in Childers, a farming community some 300 kilometers north of Brisbane, in June 2000. The fire killed 15 travelers from half a dozen countries, including Australia, Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands, South Korea and Japan.

Prosecutors portrayed Long as a cowardly drifter who bore a grudge against the hostel and hated young backpackers. They charged him with killing of only two of the victims in order to simplify the trial.

British student Keith O'Brien survived the inferno and gave key evidence at the trial. He'd overheard Long threaten to burn the hostel down a week before the disaster. "I was woken by smashing windows, people banging on doors, people screaming," he said. "I looked out of my bedroom window and saw flames leaping up the side of the building about 30 feet high. It's changed my perspective on life you know."

Some of the 70 survivors who testified at Long's trial told the court how they had to crawl through smoke-filled corridors with their faces scraping against the floor to find the oxygen that would save them.