TWO former Cessnock residents have told an inquest that they believe convicted arsonist Brendan Hokin started the 2002 Abernethy bushfire that claimed the life of Sydney businessman Ronald Gillett.
Ben Garbutt and his partner Natasha Clark told Newcastle Coroners Court yesterday that they heard Hokin make a "frantic" radio call to his partner Candice Preston on the morning of the October 19 fire.
Hokin was charged two days before the fire with lighting a fire at Pokolbin and was later jailed for three months.
Mr Garbutt and Ms Clark did not come forward with details of the alleged radio transmission until last year when they answered a newspaper advertisement offering a $20,000 reward for information about the Abernethy fire.
The advertisement was placed by Abernethy resident Gary Price, who later recorded interviews with Mr Garbutt and Ms Clark.
Mr Garbutt, an amateur radio operator who had lived at Cessnock, said he heard a transmission from "Frog" to "Cat" about 10.30am on the day of the fire. He said Frog was Hokin's call sign and Cat was Ms Preston's.
Mr Garbutt said Frog was "frantic" when he transmitted: "There's a fire, there's a fire. I'm blocking down the gutters at mum's house."
Mr Garbutt and Ms Clark were adamant Ms Preston responded, but neither could recall what she said.
Mr Garbutt said he climbed onto the roof of his house, but could not see smoke.
Half an hour later they went for a drive and saw emergency services "everywhere".
"We've always thought that [Hokin] did it," Mr Garbutt said.
Counsel for the Rural Rire Service, John Agius SC, suggested to Mr Garbutt and Ms Clark that they lied about the radio transmission to get Mr Price's reward.
Both denied the claim.
A 2004 inquest found that the fire was lit "by persons unknown".
Detective Sergeant Craig Oliver conducted a second investigation, but told the inquest yesterday there was not enough evidence to lay charges against anyone.
He said Mr Price had provided a number of theories.
The inquest before Deputy State Coroner Carl Milovanovich continues.