The owner of a Portland apartment building where six people died in a fire two years ago was sentenced Thursday to 90 days in jail for a misdemeanor building code violation.

Justice Thomas Warren handed down the sentence in Superior Court in Portland. It is believed to be the first time that a landlord in Maine has been jailed for a safety code violation.

Although landlord Gregory Nisbet was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the Noyes Street fire, Warren said the code violation deprived three tenants on the third floor of an emergency exit and a chance to get out of the house alive. The staircase was on fire and the only third-floor window was too small to be used as a way out, regardless of doubts raised during Nisbet’s trial about whether the tenants were conscious or quickly overcome by smoke and fumes.

“This was a knowing violation of the code and it had serious consequences,” Warren said.

Although the judge chose not to impose the maximum jail sentence of six months, he ordered Nisbet to pay the maximum fine, $1,000.

‘It’s not done for the families. … I’m doing time my whole life. This is not something that just goes away.’

— Ashley Summers

While an appeal is possible, the sentencing appears to end a criminal case that has been closely watched by the victims’ families and by landlords, tenants and municipal officials across the state. The Nov. 1, 2014, blaze was Maine’s deadliest fire in nearly four decades and prompted Portland to create a new housing safety office, expand its safety inspections of rental units and more aggressively prosecute landlords who fail to respond to notices of code violations.

The sentence stunned many landlords.

“I think the sentence is shocking and terrifying for landlords,” said Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlord Association. “This is basically an indictment of many landlords in the city of Portland.”

Nisbet’s sentence was stayed for 21 days so he can decide whether to appeal. If he doesn’t appeal, he would begin serving his sentence Dec. 23.

VICTIM’S WIDOW: SENTENCE TOO SHORT

Ashley Summers, the widow of Steven Summers, offers her reaction after the sentencing of landlord Gregory Nisbet on Thursday.

Defense attorneys Matt Nichols and Sarah Churchill said no decision has been made on an appeal. “I think it’s fair to say that he’s considering all of his options,” Churchill said.

Steven Summers

Steven Summers, 29

After the court proceeding, Ashley Summers, whose husband, Steven, died as a result of burns sustained in the fire and left behind two young children, said she was pleased that Nisbet will spend time in jail, but she wishes the sentence was longer.

“It’s not done for the families,” Summers said. “I’m doing time my whole life. This is not something that just goes away.”

Before the judge ruled, a state prosecutor and the mother of a victim called on Warren to impose the maximum sentence.

Lisa LaConte Mazziotti described standing outside of the smoldering building and wondering if her daughter, Nicole, who went by “Nikki,” was among the dead. Her daughter’s remains were not identified for seven days. The 26-year-old was one of three people who died on the third floor.

Nicole Finlay, 26

Nicole Finlay, 26

“Nikki was in the prime of her life. … She talked about wanting to travel and experience new places,” said Mazziotti, describing the two years since the fire as a living hell. “I’ve spent a lot of time crying. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about my only daughter, Nikki. I will never hear her sweet voice again, or get a hug and kiss when she comes through the door to visit.”

Nisbet also spoke in court, addressing family members for the first time and saying he has been deeply affected by the deaths.

“I can only imagine the pain and the hell you go through every single day,” he said. “I, myself, cry and mourn daily the loss of those young lives. I mourn for those parents and their children, for their friends and their loved ones.”

Nisbet said he has wanted to reach out to the families to express his “extreme anguish,” but couldn’t because of the investigation. He said his ties with the three tenants who died in the fire “transcended the traditional landlord-tenant relationship.” Although he didn’t know the others who died, Nisbet said he met many of his tenants’ guests.

“It very easily could have been my son, or my niece, who hung out with them a lot and was actually there that night. Or it could have been any other of the countless wonderful, beautiful people who have passed through those doors on so many occasions,” Nisbet said. “But it wasn’t. It was your sons. Your daughters. Your brothers. Your sisters. Your husband. Your daughters’ father and your friend. And I am here today to accept the verdict of the court and accept responsibility for my actions or inactions.”

LESSON ON LANDLORD RESPONSIBILITY

Ashley Thomas

Ashley Thomas, 29

Nisbet said the case has opened the eyes of tenants and landlords, and that he hopes the increased awareness will save other lives.

“There’s no question that a landlord’s responsibility goes beyond what is required in codes and ordinances,” he said. “It is more than a transaction of rent for shelter. And my only hope is that somehow and in some way, lives will be saved by the awareness that we’ve all experienced from this horribly tragic event.”

In October, Nisbet was acquitted on manslaughter charges in the fire, which was ignited by cigarette butts improperly discarded on the front porch. However, Warren found him guilty of a misdemeanor code violation for having a window on the third floor that was too small to qualify as an emergency escape route. Testimony indicated Nisbet, who also is a professional real estate agent, had been warned about the window size before the fire. The code violation was discovered during the post-fire investigation.

DEFENSE ARGUES AGAINST JAIL TIME

David Bragdon Jr.

David Bragdon Jr., 27

The fire killed tenants David Bragdon Jr., 27, Nicole “Nikki” Finlay, 26, and Ashley Thomas, 29. Also killed were Steven Summers, 29, of Rockland, Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham, and Christopher “Miles” Conlee, 25, of Portland, who were visiting the house for a Halloween party.

Testimony during the week-long trial in October was both dramatic and highly technical, with survivors describing their harrowing escape from the apartment as it quickly filled with smoke and flames. One survivor, Paul Garrido, a friend of Summers, said he heard two women screaming on the third floor as he and two others escaped.

Defense attorney Nichols said Thursday that Nisbet should not serve any jail time because the landlord never received a formal violation notice from the city and has no criminal record. No other landlord in Maine has received a criminal conviction for a building code violation, he said, noting that landlords already have been put on notice by the extensive media coverage of the fire over the past two years.

Christopher Conlee

Christopher Conlee, 25

“I think the fine is appropriate,” Nichols said. “I think the criminal conviction is, I believe, unprecedented. There should not be any jail sentence.”

However, state prosecutor Bud Ellis asked the judge to levy the maximum sentence, partly as a way to put landlords throughout the state on notice. He said Nisbet ignored a warning from a building contractor in 2005 that the third-floor windows were not large enough to meet code.

“They never had a chance to get out of there,” Ellis said. “They were moving. There were voices … if there was an appropriate window they would have had a chance.”

JUDGE STRUGGLED WITH SENTENCING

The arguments left Warren in a difficult position.

Maelisha Jackson, 26

Maelisha Jackson, 26

Warren said he understood the desire of the victims’ family members to impose the maximum sentence, saying that “if I were a family member … I would feel exactly the same way.”

However, he noted that Nisbet was acquitted of manslaughter and couldn’t be sentenced based on those charges. Warren also needed to account for the fact that Nisbet had no criminal record and was described by people who know him as a devoted father and respected member of the community. He often would work out something with residents who couldn’t pay all of their rent, rather than simply evict them.

“This – hands down – is the hardest sentence I’ve struggled with,” Warren said. “We don’t have cases like this in Maine.”>