Prosecutors dismissed their case Tuesday against a 13-year-old boy accused of setting the first of three major fires in downtown Lewiston last spring that put the entire city on edge.
Together, the three fires over eight days displaced nearly 200 people and destroyed nine apartment buildings, leaving behind swaths of empty lots in Lewiston’s otherwise densely populated downtown.
The Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office decided to drop three arson counts against Brody Covey about four months after a judge threw out a confession the boy made to Lewiston police, ruling that the police failed to read him his rights until an hour and 45 minutes into their interrogation.
Covey’s confession, made first to a Lewiston police detective and then to his mother on a video recorded at the police station, was the key evidence against him in the blaze that destroyed three apartment buildings on April 29. Covey was 12 at the time.
District Attorney Norman Croteau said members of his office came to the “painstaking” decision that without the confession, they couldn’t make the case against Covey.
“Without those statements, we simply can’t prove the arson or who did it,” Croteau said. “It’s a difficult decision to make, but we have to make sure we have the evidence before we can move forward.”
District Court Judge Rick Lawrence’s ruling Oct. 15 was the second major blow to law enforcement’s attempts to hold four arson suspects, all from Lewiston, responsible for the three massive fires that shook the downtown. Bryan Wood, 24, one of two men charged with setting a fire on May 6 that destroyed two buildings, was deemed incompetent to stand trial because of an intellectual disability. Superior Court Justice MaryGay Kennedy ruled in August that Wood likely would not be competent in the foreseeable future.
The other man charged, Brian Morin, 30, has pleaded not guilty to two counts of arson. His case remains pending.
With the dismissal of Covey’s case, no one has been held accountable for the fires that struck the city’s poorest residents. Most of those displaced were living in poverty, many of them refugees from war-torn African nations. It took government agencies, volunteers and social workers more than two months to find homes for all of them.
All that’s left where the buildings burned are vacant lots that Lewiston officials have said will likely stay empty for years.
The case against another boy, Abdi Ibrahim, charged with starting the fire on May 3, remains pending. Ibrahim was 12 at the time and is now 13. He has denied four counts of arson in the blaze, which destroyed four apartment buildings.
No one was seriously injured in any of the fires.
As for Covey, in a recording of his confession played in court last year, he admitted starting a fire April 29 on the porch behind the condemned building at 109 Blake St., where he lived with his family, who faced imminent eviction. The fire spread and destroyed two adjacent buildings, at 172 Bates St. and 82 Pine St.
Covey was initially considered a witness, not a suspect, when he was brought to the police station to be interviewed on May 2. The video of the interview, played in court in July, shows Lewiston police Detective Robert Morin making an abrupt shift in his questioning more than eight minutes into the video, pausing before asking Covey pointedly, “Did you set it?”
Covey answered no at first, but eventually confessed that he lit the fire on the back porch. Morin then brought Covey’s mother and stepfather into the interview room and read Covey his constitutionally required Miranda rights – that he didn’t have to talk and was entitled to a lawyer. Covey’s mother and stepfather said they wanted an attorney present.
Months later in court, Covey’s attorney, Allan Lobozzo, argued to have the boy’s statements suppressed as evidence because police were too late in reading him his rights.
In a 10-page ruling, Judge Lawrence said Covey’s confession was inadmissible because of the Miranda issue. He also ruled that Covey’s confession to his mother, Jessica Reilly, in the same police interrogation room was inadmissible as “fruit of the poisonous tree” – statements that were voluntary but wouldn’t have been made if police hadn’t committed the constitutional violation.
On Tuesday, Lobozzo called the prosecutors’ decision to dismiss Covey’s case “inevitable,” but said he still considered it a “big relief.”
“It’s a great victory for a wonderful young man,” he said.
Lobozzo said that since Covey has been removed from the custody of his mother and stepfather, Charles Epps, who is now in jail, he has excelled academically and his behavior has improved.
While Covey was living at home, he often failed to complete his homework and turn in school assignments. While being held at the state’s Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland, he tested in the 90th percentile in multiple subjects for children in his age group, his attorney said.
Covey is now living with a foster family, but Lobozzo declined to say where. Lobozzo said he thinks Lewiston residents may still harbor hard feelings against Covey for the fire, but said the boy deserves a second chance.
“I think there’s going to be some rancor. There’s always going to be some anger. People always want a scapegoat,” Lobozzo said. “The good news is, this is a good kid.”
Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said he understands that residents may be unhappy with the criminal justice system. But as a former police officer for 23 years, Macdonald said he knows that what often appear as “open and shut” cases from the outside may not always be the case.
“It was unfortunate all around, but I have confidence in the District Attorney’s Office. If they said they couldn’t go on with it, they couldn’t go on with it,” Macdonald said. “And I have confidence in the (Lewiston) Police Department.”
Macdonald also said that while he wasn’t excusing Covey’s alleged actions, he had heard only positive things about the boy since.
“I guess the kid is a really good kid,” he said. “Everyone was amazed that he would do something like this.”
One city councilor, Leslie Dubois, who represents Lewiston’s Ward 1, said she was “surprised” to hear that the case against Covey was dismissed, but she hadn’t been following the criminal proceeding closely.
Dubois said that, as a councilor, her attention has been more on the empty lots left behind after the shells of the nine burned buildings were torn down, not on the court cases.
“We’re trying to figure out what to do with those lots now,” she said.
Another city councilor, Doreen Christ, who represents Lewiston’s Ward 4, said she hadn’t heard any feedback from constituents about the dismissal by Tuesday afternoon, but expected to hear from them later in the week.
Gov. Paul LePage visited Lewiston, his hometown, after the fires, but drew criticism from some legislators who said he should tap into discretionary funds to help the displaced residents. Although LePage initially said there were no funds in the governor’s contingency fund, he later pledged $50,000 from the fund to help displaced residents.
If Covey had been convicted, he could have been committed to a youth detention facility until he turns 21. His case was open to the public by Maine law, unlike most juvenile cases, because of the seriousness of the charges.
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: