Man facing life in jail for murdering widowed foster carer and torching home

A small-time cocaine dealer who strangled a widow in her home and then called sex chat-lines from her phone is facing a life sentence after being convicted of murder.

Norma Bell, 79, was a much-loved mother-of-nine from Hartlepool, who had fostered more than 50 children with her late husband John.

Penniless thief Gareth Dack used a cable to choke her, ransacked her home, stole a boxed TV and £700 cash, and repeatedly used her phone to call sex lines advertised on the channel Babestation.

And detectives were disturbed to find the 5ft pensioner's knickers had been cut with scissors.

The 33-year-old father-of-four had started fires in Mrs Bell's terraced home last April and turned on the gas, hoping to cause an explosion to destroy the evidence.

He was convicted of murder and arson following a trial at Teesside Crown Court.

Dack, who had borrowed £10 from his kindly victim the weekend before, claimed he was not responsible, saying she was a "wonderful woman".

When he was asked why he did not answer detectives' questions after he was arrested, he could only say he thought the police were corrupt, and had not wanted to help.

That was despite Mrs Bell being the foster mother of a childhood friend, and him having known her since he was a boy.

Christopher Tehrani QC, prosecuting, had told the jury Dack was guilty of "the brutal and unnecessary murder of Norma Bell and the arson".

Outside court, Chief Superintendent Alastair Simpson said Dack had interfered with her clothing, and had cut her underwear.

There was no evidence that he had sexually assaulted her.

But Mr Simpson added: "That doesn't mean we can rule out Norma being sexually assaulted; we have not recovered any evidence to say she was."

The officer speculated that Dack phoned the sex lines to take his mind off the dreadful, violent crime he had committed.

He strangled her and she had injuries to her ribs and shoulders consistent with someone kneeling on her.

Mr and Mrs Bell had three children of their own and six long-term foster children they treated as their own.

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Mrs Justice Whipple said she would sentence Dack on Thursday morning.

There were cries of "yes" from the public gallery as the jury foreman returned guilty verdicts to the charges of murder and arson.

Dack blinked frequently as he was convicted but did not visibly react.

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