It’s been nearly two years since an early morning fire swept through a Portland apartment building and killed six young adults. This week, a judge in Portland will be asked to answer a question that has divided some in the community: Was the landlord at fault in their deaths?

Landlord Gregory Nisbet goes on trial Monday and could face a lengthy prison sentence if he is convicted. It would be the first time in Maine that a landlord has been successfully prosecuted for manslaughter in the death of a tenant because of negligent operation of the building, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.

The trial will be closely watched by the families and friends of the six victims, some of whom plan to be in the courthouse and say they want to see the landlord held accountable. It also will be watched by the larger community, including landlords who say the blame is being misplaced and that the charges set a bad precedent.

Nisbet is facing six counts of manslaughter stemming from the fire on Nov. 1, 2014 at 20-24 Noyes St. Five of the victims died inside the building, and the sixth jumped from a second-floor window but died days later as a result of burn injuries.

Nisbet was not charged with causing the fire – it was determined to be accidental. But he is accused of managing the property in a way that prosecutors say turned the fire into Maine’s deadliest in 40 years.

A person is guilty of manslaughter if he recklessly or with criminal negligence causes the death of someone else. It is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

Nisbet waived his right to a jury trial, so his fate will rest with one man: Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren, an 18-year veteran of the bench. Assistant Attorney General Bud Ellis will be prosecuting the case for the state, and attorney Matthew Nichols will be representing the 51-year-old Nisbet. The trial is expected to last a week.

Although the fire had a traumatic effect on the community, Nichols said he expects the case will focus largely on highly technical arguments relating to building and fire codes, among other things.

“It’s legally and factually very complicated,” Nichols said, noting that it’s too soon to say whether Nisbet will take the stand in his own defense. “I am confident that everyone involved in this case will do an extremely good job in seeing that we reach a just result.”

Ellis declined to comment.

INVESTIGATION AND REPERCUSSIONS

The fire was ignited by improperly discarded smoking materials on the front porch and quickly spread through the three-story apartment building. The blaze was fueled by a chair and couch on the porch and spread into the building through an open door. Investigators say the smoke alarms were not working and a rear stairwell was blocked by furniture, forcing the three survivors to jump from a second-story window.

“I feel (Nisbet) is responsible for my child’s death,” said Nikki Thomas of Gilford, New Hampshire. “I would like to see justice served.”

Thomas said her family continues to feel the void left by the death of 29-year-old Ashley Thomas, one of six people who lived at the apartment.

The fire also killed Steven Summers, 29, of Rockland, Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham, and Chris Conlee, 25, of Portland, who were visiting the house, and David Bragdon Jr., 27, and Nicole Finlay, 26, who were residents.

Local landlords – ranging from professional landlords with hundreds of units to those renting a small number of units – will also be following the trial, said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association.

“These are very serious charges,” Vitalius said. “I think landlords are very concerned. To what degree is a landlord responsible for the actions of their tenants under the law?”

Both sides were in the courtroom Friday to make arguments on the defense’s motion to suppress evidence. Nichols argued that Nisbet should have been read his Miranda rights before being interviewed, but the state contended that Nisbet was never under arrest and willingly offered information to investigators. Justice Warren ruled that Nisbet’s statements would be allowed during the trial.

Investigators determined that tenants had disabled the smoke alarms. State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said last year that interviews with tenants indicated that the alarms would go off at different times, prompting them to be removed, leaving wires sticking out of the walls.

Investigators also found that a rear stairwell was blocked and that a third-floor bedroom did not have a secondary means of escape, as required by fire codes.

Prosecutors claim that Nisbet, who is also facing five misdemeanor code violations, was operating the duplex as a rooming house, where each bedroom is rented out individually. Such a housing arrangement would have required a more sophisticated fire alarm system.

The Noyes Street fire prompted the city to create a new Housing Safety Office. The city has beefed up its inspections program and is more aggressive in its efforts to bring buildings up to code, often taking unresponsive landlords to court. The city also requires landlords to register all of their units.

LANDLORD KNOWN AS GOOD GUY

Gregory Nisbet

Gregory Nisbet

Nisbet had not been listed by the city as one of its problem landlords before the fire. He has been described by fellow real estate professionals and by tenants as a laid-back and accommodating guy, who placed a lot to trust in the people who rented his apartments.

Nisbet typically rented to tenants on a monthly basis, rather than requiring an annual lease, which allowed more flexibility for both tenants and himself. He also worked with people who couldn’t afford rent, rather than moving to evict them. However, he would occasionally stop by unannounced looking for rent money, which bothered some tenants.

Nisbet’s decision to waive his right to a jury trial did not surprise E. James Burke – who practiced criminal law for 30 years in Lewiston and has been a clinical professor at the University of Maine School of Law for the past 14 years – given the complexity of the case and emotional nature of the tragedy.

Charges against a landlord for an accidental fire are unusual, but not unprecedented in Maine or the United States.

A Brooklyn landlord is facing charges of second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and second-degree reckless endangerment in New York stemming from a 2014 blaze that killed one person and seriously burned three others. The landlord is accused of ignoring code violations, building illegal units and failing to comply with an order to vacate the building.

In 2014, another Brooklyn landlord pleaded guilty to negligent homicide for a 2010 fire that killed five people. That case also involved a landlord who had illegally subdivided his units, making it more difficult for firefighters to extinguish the blaze and reach the victims. The New York Times reported that he was expected to be sentenced to three years in jail and ordered to pay $1 million to the family of a girl who suffered severe brain injuries after being dropped from a third-floor window.

PRIOR LANDLORD CASES IN MAINE

Maine Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said in an interview last year that she could recall two instances in the past 25 years when the state filed charges against landlords for fatal fires.

One case was the result of a Biddeford fire in April 2006. A 3-year-old boy who was playing with matches died in the blaze. Charges were brought against a Massachusetts landlord because the apartment where the family lived was built illegally and only had one exit. The landlord pleaded guilty to reckless conduct, Marchese said last year.

The other case resulted from a Lewiston fire in 1997. The landlord and property owner were charged with three counts of manslaughter. The fire was ignited by an ashtray filled with cigarette butts, killing a 26-year-old man and his 3-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. In that case, the smoke detectors were not working and investigators determined that the building had 23 code violations. The state later dismissed the charges, citing a lack of evidence.