A former student body president at the University of Southern Maine who had been honored for his commitment to campus life has been charged with setting a fire in a dormitory while he was a resident assistant there in 2012.
Investigators with the State Fire Marshal’s Office arrested Thomas “T.J.” Williams, 23, of the Oxford County town of Mexico on Monday afternoon and charged him with two counts of arson. Williams was indicted by the Cumberland County grand jury earlier this month.
Williams is charged with setting the fire in a utility closet of Upton-Hastings Hall in Gorham at about 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 3, during the school’s Labor Day weekend opening, authorities said. More than 200 students had to be evacuated from the building. Nobody was injured.
The fire was extinguished by the building’s sprinkler system.
The development stunned people who knew Williams as a dedicated student in and outside the classroom.
“I really have a tough time believing T.J. would do such a thing,” said Pat Washburn, a graduate student and Web developer who worked with Williams at the USM computer help desk. “He was well known on campus. He had a lot of friends. Everybody liked him. He did not seem like someone to me who was capable of such antisocial behavior.”
Williams was honored with the 2011 USM Outstanding Contribution to Campus Life award for high academic achievement and community service work. He served as vice chairman of the Student Senate from April 2011 to February 2012, was president of the USM Board of Student Organizations and served as a peer adviser and orientation leader.
Williams was elected president of the student body in an uncontested race in the spring of 2012, then removed from office in October after he stopped showing up to meetings. His LinkedIn account says he attended USM through October that year.
“He was somebody who came from a tough background in Mexico, Maine,” Washburn said. “It was clear to me that USM was the best thing that had ever happened to him.”
Washburn recalled Williams bringing his brother, who is autistic, to campus to show him around and encourage him to consider attending. She said the last she heard, Williams was active in his church group and planning to do mission work in Latin America.
Washburn spoke with Williams after he left school and knew he was a suspect in the fire.
“He told me he hadn’t done it, obviously. He said he was on duty as an RA and it was his responsibility to make the rounds of the dorm every so often,” she said. “He was caught on security cameras near the location of the fire, but it was on his duties as an RA.”
University officials said Williams was one of nine resident assistants for that dorm. He was not on duty that night, but like many of the RAs, was in the dorm and just before the fire had been taking down posters advertising a dance.
Williams, who was just a few classes short of getting his degree, is now banned from any campus in the University of Maine System as one of his bail conditions.
A person who answered Williams’ cellphone hung up when contacted by the Portland Press Herald on Tuesday. Williams also did not respond to a text message.
Williams had been taken to Cumberland County Jail on Monday. He posted $500 bail and his next court date is scheduled for March 12.
He has no criminal record, according to the State Bureau of Identification.
Williams left school after the fire in 2012, then worked as a bank teller and now works as an office assistant for the Maine Department of Labor, according to his LinkedIn page.
Sgt. Joel Davis of the State Fire Marshal’s Office said not all fire-setters have a history of crime, and there are different motivations. Some fires are set for revenge or to cover up evidence of another crime. There are also so-called vanity fires, in which the fire-setter wants to appear to be a hero, he said.
Davis would not discuss the evidence in the case or what investigators believe Williams’ motivation was, but said it fell into one of those three categories. He has not been charged with any other crimes beyond the arson charges of destruction of property and recklessly endangering lives.
Williams was identified as a person of interest early in the investigation and was interviewed several times, but the investigation was time-consuming, Davis said.
The State Fire Marshal’s Office collaborated with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on the investigation, taking advantage of the federal agency’s state-of-the-art technical abilities.
“We look at it very seriously because it’s a building occupied by 200 students,” said state Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas. In 2000, a fire in a dormitory at Seton Hall University in New Jersey killed three students and injured many others in one of the deadliest dorm fires in history. Two students were indicted three years later.
Computer modeling was used to reconstruct the materials and burn pattern inside the USM closet, and then a replica of the closet with the same contents was built and burned at the ATF facility in Beltsville, Md., Thomas said.
The information from that analysis was compared to the statements given by numerous witnesses to determine inconsistencies and discrepancies, he said.
“It’s a whole new tool we have to really look at the science and the behavior of the fire and see how that correlates to the information we’re being provided by witnesses, by suspects, by anybody offering a visual perception,” Thomas said.
Investigators – and ultimately prosecutors – are then able to say “scientifically you could not have experienced those things at that time because of this,” strengthening the case, he said.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: