Desire to bounce to the top prompted arson campaign, court hold

It wasn’t enough for James Balcombe that his bouncy castle business was successful and brought joy to customers. Behind the bounce, he was ruthless.

Having hired consultants to advise about online marketing and to enhance his company’s website, Balcombe then turned to old-fashioned business bastardry: he paid men to target his competitors and wanted them burnt to the ground.

James Balcombe outside the County Court in 2017.Credit:Jason South

Molotov cocktails were used on five businesses in a combined 10 arson attacks on factories across Melbourne and in Warragul between December 2016 and February 2017, which meant a stressful summer for Victoria’s party hire industry.

Most of the arson attempts either didn’t catch or caused limited damage, but a fire at the A&A Jumping Castles warehouse in Hoppers Crossing destroyed at least $1.4 million of property, including the building, a truck, jumping castles and other equipment, the County Court heard on Wednesday.

Aline Andrew, who ran the business with husband Michael, recalled in a victim impact statement the horror of watching CCTV recorded from a nearby factory and seeing their business ruined.

“Eight seconds is all it took to destroy 18 years of our livelihood,” she said. In another statement, she said she and Michael recently made the “heartbreaking decision” to abandon their attempt at reviving the business.

The aftermath of the fire at A&A Jumping Castles, in Hoppers Crossing, in January 2017.

Balcombe provided his former staffer, Craig Anderson, and two other men with business names and addresses and paid $2000 for every rival business they firebombed, prosecutor Nick Batten said. Afterwards, Balcombe monitored the Country Fire Authority website to check on his team’s progress.

By March 2017, after the police had been in touch, Balcombe left containers of fuel in a storage shed on his Kangaroo Ground property and arranged for Anderson, by that stage his lone fire-starter, to set it alight.

That blaze destroyed his shed but was an attempt by Balcombe to divert suspicion, Batten said. Balcombe later tried to fraudulently claim an insurance payout for his business, Awesome Party Hire. He was arrested days later.

Batten said that before the fires, Balcombe expressed his motivation to another business operator.

Andrew Saliba’s business, Xtreme Party Hire, was one target of the arson attacks in the summer of 2016-17.Credit:Justin McManus

“He told them he wanted to be No.1, and he didn’t care what happened to the others,” the prosecutor said.

Balcombe, 57, appeared before court on Wednesday for a plea hearing after he admitted last year to 11 charges of conspiracy to commit arson.

James Balcombe.Credit:Victoria Police

Between his initial arrest and eventual admissions, he spent more than a year on the run, until his arrest in Perth in 2020, where he went under the alias Paul Johnson, wore a wig and had a long beard, and ran a party hire business and manufactured fake postage stamps.

He is now in custody and watched Wednesday’s hearing on a video link from prison.

Defence counsel Simon Kenny told the court Balcombe had several unsuccessful business ventures, including selling goods on eBay, before he started a party hire business in 2006. He entered the industry after hearing of the success of Andrew Saliba, who lived next door to Balcombe’s brother.

Years later, Balcombe had Anderson repeatedly target Saliba’s business, Xtreme Party Hire. Saliba’s warehouses were firebombed four times in the 2016-17 attacks, causing a combined $40,000 damage.

Saliba said in a victim impact statement he watched CCTV monitors for hours that summer, and recalled that he and wife Samantha slept with a fire extinguisher in their bedroom out of fear.

“It was a very stressful and frustrating experience as we waited for the next attack,” he said.

Kenny acknowledged his client’s crimes were “purposeful, protracted, devious and arguably vengeful”, and developed when Balcombe became fixated with making his business more successful.

“He became obsessed with being the best and outdoing his rivals,” Kenny said.

Balcombe was abusing alcohol at the time, his lawyer said, and was later diagnosed with mental health problems, poor impulse control and manic episodes.

Anderson was 30 and had a drug problem when he was an arsonist for hire, and was ultimately jailed for 8½ years, to serve 5½ before he was eligible for parole. The two other men were sentenced to smaller terms over their involvement.

Balcombe was fined in Perth over the stamp scam and for firearms offences. On his extradition to Victoria he was jailed for a fortnight for previously using a fake doctor’s letter to avoid a court appearance.

He has now served more than 600 days on remand and will be sentenced at a later date.

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