Property developer Steve Nassif admits to setting $24m Northwood mansion on fire

A property tycoon has admitted to his role in destroying a $24m Sydney waterfront mansion in a fiery inferno.

Developer Steve Nassif, 70, was arrested in December 2022 over an arson attack that reduced a heritage estate to smouldering rubble at Cliff Rd in Northwood two months earlier.

He appeared in Sydney Downing Centre Local Court on Thursday wearing a navy suit and white shirt to plead guilty to the charge of destroying property by fire.

It’s alleged Mr Nassif has ties to the six-bedroom home’s owner, fellow property developer Ouyang “Owen” Chen.

Mr Chen, who is not accused of any wrongdoing, bought the house on Sydney’s lower north shore for $24.1m in 2021.

The court documents reveal he also owns the neighbouring house at 60 Cliff Rd, for which he submitted a significant development application in August 2021.

The DA was knocked back two months later because the council ruled the renovations would have “an unacceptable impact on the heritage” house located at 62 Cliff Rd.

Mr Chen lodged an appeal against the decision in July 2022, two months before Mr Nassif and his 19-year-old accomplice Adams Kipkosgei Bett mounted their first arson attempt.

The agreed facts show the men bought more than 56L of petrol on August 21 when Bett entered the house to burn it down. However, he changed his mind at the last minute.

Nassif had been the getaway driver that night, as he was again when the pair went through with their plan on September 3, 2022.

They purchased 36 L of petrol in a red plastic jerry can around 9.30pm and drove to 62 Cliff Rd, where Bett entered the house.

The teen lit the fire just after 10.40pm “causing a bright glow to emanate from within the property”, according to the court documents.

Within ten minutes, neighbouring properties had to be evacuated.

At 10.50pm, Nassif was captured on CCTV driving his campervan away from the scene.

Emergency services rushed to the Cliff Rd home just after 11pm after receiving more than 30 triple-0 calls from concerned locals.

Firefighting crews found the house engulfed in flames, some of which were 20m high.

Up to 50 firefighters and 12 trucks responded to the blaze due to major concerns it could spread to adjoining properties.

They managed to extinguish the flames within two hours and kept the damage contained to the 4847sq m property.

Police questioned Mr Chen the next day about whether he had set his house alight or if he had arranged for someone else to do the deed.

He denied he had played any role in the fire and told police he was “half a victim”, according to court documents.

“You have to work it out,” Mr Chen told them.

In his own interview with police, Bett admitted he set the fire and Nassif had driven him.

He denied Nassif had made direct threats of violence towards him about the fire, and said he didn’t commit arson with the understanding he would receive payment.

Bett has pleaded guilty to intentionally or recklessly damaging property over his role in the late-night blaze and will appear before the court for sentencing proceedings in June.

Nassif will be sentenced at a later date.

Before it was destroyed, the 1915 home at 62 Cliff Rd was one of the oldest properties in Northwood.

Along with spectacular views of the Lane Cove River, Sydney’s CBD and Anzac Bridge, the mansion had boasted a tennis court, six bedrooms, a boathouse, sandstone cellar and an orchard.

A development application to demolish the property was recently refused by council.

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