24 August 2023

Police officer feared he would die when man doused him in petrol and fumbled with a lighter

| Albert McKnight
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John William Nocen was spared being returned to jail when he was sentenced on Thursday. Photo: Albert McKnight.

John William Nocen was spared being returned to jail when he was sentenced on Thursday. Photo: Albert McKnight.

A police officer who pulled a man from a burning shed before the latter splashed petrol over him and tried to ignite a cigarette lighter still endures the lasting impacts from the terrifying incident.

Body-worn camera footage of the chaos on 10 January 2023 shows John William Nocen being pulled from a shed as the petrol he had poured over the floor ignited with an audible “whoomph” before he got into a struggle with the officer.

Those present could be heard yelling, “Let it go, John” and “Let go of the lighter”.

In the ACT Galambany Court on Thursday (24 August), the police officer said he had initially arrived at the scene to find Nocen’s partner “covered in her own blood” due to her injuries while Nocen “did not care” another man had been in the shed with him when he was pouring the petrol.

He said he could feel the heat from the flames when he went into the shed to pull them out, but Nocen then doused him in petrol and assaulted him.

“You attempted to light me on fire,” the officer told the 43-year-old.

“I feared I was not going home to my family that shift.”

He told Nocen that he did not forgive him for the incident, which he said was “burnt into my memory”.

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Special Magistrate Anthony Hopkins said the officer had given a real insight into the effect of the offending, such as his fear of immolation and death.

“It’s clear it’s going to live with him and his family for the rest of their lives as well,” he said.

He said Nocen had become separated from his partner when he began behaving in a threatening way around her and hit her in the knee, face and stomach.

He kicked a window in when trying to get into her home to look for his belongings before saying, “I’ll f-ing burn everything then”.

Police arrived just before he lit the petrol he had poured on the shed’s floor on fire. The police officer pulled him out, but Nocen then forced him into a fence and poured petrol onto him before they got into a wrestle, during which he punched and elbowed the officer.

He also kept trying to light a cigarette lighter, resulting in the officer feeling a burning sensation on his skin.

Prosecutor Elizabeth Wren said it had been particularly concerning that Nocen had continued to try and ignite the lighter when the police officer was covered in petrol and it was “only luck” that the officer’s injuries weren’t more serious.

When the court’s elders asked Nocen how he felt about what he had done, he said he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed”.

“I know you were doing your job and you shouldn’t have to turn up and be treated like that and have your family put through the things I basically put you through,” he told the officer.

“I had no intention of doing it. I was not in a very good state of mind at the time.”

Nocen had spent about two-and-a-half months in custody before he was granted bail and his lawyer, the Aboriginal Legal Service’s Sam Lynch, said that had been his first time in jail and he had no criminal history before these offences.

Mr Lynch said his client had an acquired brain injury, a depressive disorder, a history of trauma in his life and there had been an apparent decline in his mental health at the time of the incident.

He said Nocen has a mental health plan and requires the assistance of his partner.

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Special Magistrate Hopkins said the seriousness of the incident had to be understood in the context of Nocen’s mental illness and cognitive challenges.

“It’s not a situation where you were making rational choices,” he said.

Nocen pleaded guilty to assault, damaging property, resisting a territory public official and two counts of acts endangering health.

He was convicted and sentenced to two years’ jail, backdated to account for time served and suspended from Thursday for a two-year good behaviour order.

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