They had him, but had to let him go — just 24 hours before he could have been arrested on an arson charge.

Raymond J. Bellavance Jr., 49, of Augusta is suspected of burning down the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop in Vassalboro last year, but police haven’t been able to find him.

A warrant for his arrest was issued Monday after a 10-month investigation. Officials said this week that they couldn’t complete case documents in time to get the warrant while Bellavance was jailed last week on an unrelated charge.

It isn’t an example of “a breakdown of the system,” said Sgt. Ken Grimes of the state Fire Marshal’s Office, but rather a case where “the timing just didn’t fall together.”

“Certainly we’re disappointed Mr. Bellavance has not been arrested; however, I don’t feel it’s any fault of any particular agency,” Grimes said. “The process was laid out and followed, and if somebody has no outstanding warrants and no further charges, they’re free to go. The short of it is, the mechanism was not in place to hold him.”

Fire investigators say Bellavance set the coffee shop ablaze during the early hours of June 3, 2009, while the shop’s owner, Donald Crabtree, and his daughters, their boyfriends and their two young children, slept inside apartments in the building. They escaped injury after a passing ambulance crew noticed the blaze about 1 a.m. and woke them up.

Crabtree said Tuesday that he had a run-in with Bellavance soon after the shop opened in February 2009.

According to Crabtree, Bellavance claimed that his ex-girlfriend, Krista MacIntyre, a waitress at the coffee shop, had engaged in illegal behavior and he threatened to have the shop shut down if Crabtree didn’t fire her. Crabtree said he determined that the waitress hadn’t done anything wrong, and he took no action.

Details of the arson charge against Bellavance are being kept secret; the affidavit in Kennebec County Superior Court has been sealed.

According to court records and authorities, Bellavance has a criminal record in Kennebec County stretching back more than three decades. His most recent charge — failure to pay $1,840 in fines — landed him in police custody as the Fire Marshal’s Office prepared to seek a warrant for his arrest.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty said a warrant was issued March 25 on Bellavance’s unpaid fines, from a charge of driving as a habitual offender.

He was arrested and unable to post bail, so he was held in the Kennebec County jail from 11:20 a.m. on March 31 until 3:02 p.m. Friday, according to jail records. On Friday, he was arraigned by video at the jail, Liberty said, and worked out a payment plan for the fines with the District Court judge.

Fire investigators knew Bellavance had been arrested, Grimes said, although they didn’t know much else, such as when he would be released. That’s not unusual, Grimes said, because the unpaid-fine charge was unrelated to the arson case.

Meanwhile, investigators were scrambling to wrap up work that had been 10 months in the making, Grimes said.

“We didn’t have the affidavit complete,” he said. “There was some last-minute information we were running down; we were trying to get it done on time and that didn’t happen. We certainly put in extra hours trying to get the information we were looking for.”

And “obviously, the sheriff’s department can’t hold somebody in jail without a warrant or an order,” he said.

Saturday afternoon, investigators completed the affidavit, which is more than 20 pages long, and had a judge review and approve it.

“If we had run across Mr. Bellavance we could have arrested him on probable cause without a warrant,” Grimes said. “And, in fact, we had been out over the weekend trying to locate him.” Now, it’s unknown whether he is still in central Maine, police said.

On Wednesday, Grimes said authorities “would be more than happy to hear from anyone who knows of his whereabouts.”

Police asked anyone with information to call Maine State Police in Augusta at 624-7076 or 911 on a cell phone.