Two men were arrested Friday and charged with setting a fire that burned vacant apartment buildings Monday, the most recent of three blazes that have displaced scores of residents and left the city on edge.
Police said Bryan Wood, 23, and Brian Morin, 29, were arrested about 7 p.m. and each was charged with three counts of arson. Authorities made the announcement at a news conference late Friday at the Lewiston police station.
Wood lives at 131 Bartlett St., just a few doors down from the scene of Monday’s fire, two vacant apartment buildings at 110 Bartlett St. Morin, police said, is a transient who had been staying with Wood recently.
Police and officials from the State Fire Marshal’s Office declined to discuss a motive for the fire. They also declined to say how the blaze started.
About 200 people have been displaced by the three recent fires, the first of which was on April 29.
Brody Covey, a 12-year-old boy, was charged with arson in that fire. Police say he set the fire in a recently condemned nine-unit complex at 105-111 Blake St. The blaze destroyed three buildings on Blake, Bates and Pine streets and displaced 75 residents.
Another 12-year-old boy was charged with arson in the second fire, which burned four buildings and a garage between Bartlett and Pierce streets May 3. The Sun Journal identified the boy as Abdi Ibrahim, citing court papers filed by the fire marshal’s office Friday.
Both youths are scheduled to be arraigned Monday at 8th District Court in Lewiston.
State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas said both Wood and Morin are known to police and fire investigators. Lewiston Police Chief Michael Bussiere said both have records, but he declined to say what previous charges they had faced.
Thomas said the investigation of the third fire was more difficult than the first two because neither Wood nor Morin appeared to have any connection with the buildings that were burned.
He said police picked up tips on the street from officers with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, while fire investigators had technical help from federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives technicians.
Bussiere said Wood and Morin were interviewed by police at the city’s central station earlier Friday but he would not say where they were arrested.
Wood and Morin were taken to the Androscoggin County Jail in Auburn.
Both are expected to make their first court appearances either Monday or Tuesday, said Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.
Morin was actually taken into custody shortly after Monday’s blaze, but was released after seven hours.
In an interview Monday with the Press Herald, he said he was returning around 3 a.m. to an apartment where he was staying with friends when the fire broke out.
“(The police) asked why I did it, and what I used to set it,” Morin said at the time.
He said he planned to take a polygraph test Tuesday and that it would show his innocence. “I’m not going to admit to something I didn’t do,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear Friday if he took the polygraph as planned.
McCausland declined to say late Friday whether Wood and Morin had criminal records and whether Morin had taken a polygraph.
Bussiere said that he hopes the latest arrests will ease the fears of residents, many of whom have said they are afraid their buildings will be targeted next.
“It’s been a long week,” the police chief said. “Some people should sleep easier tonight.”
However, Bussiere said police will continue, for the foreseeable future, their stepped-up patrols in the downtown neighborhoods where the fires have struck.
MATCHING MONEY FROM LEPAGE
In another development Friday, a day after legislative leaders voted to send $30,000 from their own budget to assist Lewiston residents displaced by the three major fires, Gov. Paul LePage said he plans to match that amount.
The announcement brings the total of state funds pledged for assistance to $60,000 so far, after the string of blazes displaced nearly 200 residents and destroyed nearly 80 apartments in an eight-day span.
“We’re still working out the details, but the governor is trying to figure out the best way to get those funds to Lewiston,” Peter Steele, the governor’s communications director, said Friday.
The move is a reversal of LePage’s stance Tuesday, when, during a visit to the sites of the fires, he was asked whether he would tap any discretionary funds to assist the city where he grew up.
His response was: “What discretionary funding? If there’s discretionary funding — I’ve been here more than two years and I haven’t found any.”
LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett explained at the time that the governor was distinguishing between discretionary money and the contingency account, which has about $250,000. When he was asked about it, he thought the contingency fund was depleted.
Bennett said at the time that the governor didn’t plan to use that account for the Lewiston fire victims, a decision that drew criticism from some lawmakers.
On Friday, Steele said the governor’s contribution will be pulled from his contingency fund, matching $30,000 approved Thursday by the Legislative Council, which is made up of Democratic and Republican leaders in the House and Senate.
“Something that is getting lost is that the state did jump into action, so to say that the governor hasn’t done anything is inaccurate,” Steele said.
Steele said it had not been decided yet where the $30,000 from the governor will go.
The Legislature’s $30,000 will go to the city of Lewiston for disbursement to families to help them pay security deposits on new apartments and, in some cases, the first month’s rent.
The news was welcome at the Androscoggin Bank Collisee, the impromptu shelter for the mostly Somali immigrants who were displaced by the second blaze on May 3, which destroyed four structures on Pierce Street. About 29 people were still staying at the shelter, according to the Red Cross.
Fatuma Hussein, director of the United Somali Women of Maine, who spent the day on the phone with landlords and state housing inspectors to help some of the remaining refugees find apartments, said that although housing remains the biggest concern, the victims will continue to need furniture, beds, linens, and support through the transition.
“There is hope for these families,” Hussein said, lauding the aid organizations who have come together. “There’s also a lot of gratitude,” she said.
Sue Charron, Lewiston’s director of social services, said the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday granted a waiver to the Somali refugees who were displaced by the fire on Pierce Street and whose subsidized housing status was tied to the buildings that burned.
The waiver from HUD allows the tenants to bring the subsidy with them to a new apartment until the owner of the previous complex rebuilds.
Charron said she expects most of the displaced residents to find new housing by the end of next week.
“It’s just amazing how people have worked so well together,” Charron said, rattling off a list of state and nonprofit groups that have lined up to help.
Since the fires, the city’s effort to identify, condemn and repossess decrepit buildings has ramped up, with Lewiston public safety and inspection personnel identifying a 30-block area that contains the most glaring issues.
The city has so far issued 24 temporary passes to the city dump that waives tipping fees, an incentive for tenants and landlords to tidy up unsafe and unattractive properties.
Also on Friday, the Department of Corrections said it would send prison work crews to Lewiston to help clean up debris and flammable material in vacant lots.
The prison crews would not be at the scenes of the fires, according to Maine Correctional Center Superintendent Scott Burnheimer.
Firefighters on Friday also began a biannual inspection process of the dozens of vacant and condemned properties that dot the densely built neighborhood.
Lt. James Pelletier of the Lewiston Fire Department visited several of the vacant homes, wielding a clipboard and checklist, inspecting the windows and doors while other firefighters affixed red and white placards that mean the buildings are unsafe for firefighters to enter during a fire.
The fire department’s proactive inspection regimen helps identify unsecured buildings that could be easy prey for copper thieves, drug users, or vagrants looking for a place to stay, said code enforcement officer and police Cpl. Jeff Baril, who estimated that copper theft is the quickest catalyst in a property’s demise.
But amid the dirt lots and blighted buildings, there were rays of optimism and renewal Friday as well.
Klara Tammany, director at the Center for Wisdom’s Women, was labeling Popsicle sticks to mark where other volunteers planted sunflower seeds in the now-vacant lot at the site of the first fire on Blake Street. Unwilling to take over the property with blossoms without permission, the rebel gardeners planted the donated seeds at the edge of the property.
“My dream was to seed this with a sunflower field, and have a huge sign of hope at the end of the summer,” Tammany said. “We’re hoping it will make somebody smile.”
– Staff Writer Eric Russell and Jason Singer, assistant city editor / online, contributed to this report.
Edward D. Murphy can be reached at 791-6465 or at:
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