March 10, 2010

Arson levels topless shop

SCOTT MONROE

— By

Morning Sentinel

VASSALBORO — A fire that destroyed a controversial topless coffee shop early Wednesday morning was intentionally set, according to investigators.

The blaze also damaged adjoining apartments where the business owner and family members were living. Asleep when the fire started, they escaped without injury.

The state Fire Marshal's Office discovered evidence in the building's rubble that led to the determination of arson, said Stephen McCausland of the state Department of Public Safety. Four investigators were assisted by an arson-detecting dog, he said.

McCausland declined to say what the evidence was, but said it was taken to the state crime lab for analysis.

''We are looking for anyone who may have information on this, who might have seen vehicles parked in that general area around 1 a.m. Wednesday, or anyone walking along the roadway,'' McCausland said.

Grand View Topless Coffee Shop owner Donald Crabtree said Wednesday afternoon that he suspected from the get-go that the fire was set deliberately.

He said he wants to rebuild and reopen the business, possibly setting up temporary quarters in the parking lot.

Crabtree said he did not have the coffee shop insured, which he admits was a mistake.

''I put everything I had into this building, and it's pretty much gone,'' he said.

He said he paid $277,000 for the property and did not owe anything on it.

''This was my business and my home. Usually you lose one or the other, not everything at once,'' Crabtree said.

Crabtree said he and six others -- his twin daughters, their boyfriends and their two 4-month-old babies -- lived in the apartment wing of the property, which once housed a motel and restaurant.

The fire was first reported at 12:58 a.m. Wednesday by an ambulance crew from Belfast driving down Route 3, said Ken MacMaster of the Fire Marshal's Office.

Crabtree and his family were awakened by the ambulance crew, MacMaster said.

''We're really lucky we all got out alive and really thankful for the ambulance crew stopping and waking us up,'' Crabtree said.

About 50 firefighters from eight departments responded shortly after 1 a.m. and extinguished the flames around 6 a.m., said Vassalboro Fire Chief Eric Rowe.

By Wednesday morning, the main coffee-shop portion's roof had collapsed on top of burned and smoldering chunks of wood, insulation and other materials, and the two adjacent motel wings were standing but uninhabitable because of fire and smoke damage.

Crabtree, who also works as a lobsterman, said he lost all his lobster crates and scales when the fire consumed a garage behind the main building.

Arson is a Class A felony charge, McCausland said, and the fact that seven people were sleeping on the property at the time is ''disturbing.''

''We're fortunate all seven were able to make it out without injury,'' he said.

The investigation is being led by the Fire Marshal's Office and assisted by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Kennebec County Sheriff's Office and the Vassalboro Police Department, McCausland said.

Crabtree opened the Grand View on Feb. 23 after several meetings with the Vassalboro Planning Board, which approved a permit for the business despite some public objections.

Board members said no town rules prevented it.

The business featured topless waitresses and waiters serving coffee and doughnuts from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

As of Wednesday, Crabtree said he employed about 10 people, including wait staff and security.

Not surprisingly, the shop's employees were upset and in shock, Crabtree said.

Krista MacIntyre, 28, of Augusta was at the scene at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday after getting a call from her boss. Around 9:30 a.m., she was still trying to absorb what happened.

''I'm just shocked,'' MacIntyre said. ''I just bought a car This is what I had to do (for work). I loved it; it's the best job I've had in my life.''

MacIntyre said the customers were friendly to her and her coworkers, and ''every day was different.''

''People would come from out of state, everywhere,'' she said.

Some critics of the business said it marred Vassalboro's image, while supporters and patrons said that if people didn't like it, they could just stay away.

The fire came just hours after Crabtree had finished a meeting Tuesday night with the Vassalboro Planning Board.

He outlined proposals to extend the shop's hours of operation to 1 a.m., expand the parking lot for employees and have its wait staff dancing to the music of a disc jockey.

Crabtree wanted to expand the business into a strip club, but he scaled back those plans Tuesday night to avoid needing a new permit.

The timing of the fire has left Crabtree with troubling questions.

''What gets me is, why now? Why not when we opened? Why is the time now? I don't know,'' Crabtree said.

Crabtree went out for a cup of coffee Wednesday morning after nearly eight hours of watching his business and home burn. He was greeted in the parking lot by devoted customer Vernon Gaudet of Augusta, who said he visited the Grand View five days a week.

Gaudet, who was there with his wife and a female friend, said he was ''stunned'' and hoped the investigation would find that the fire was caused accidentally.

He bristled at the idea that the shop was ''torched'' by an arsonist, which was not confirmed until several hours later.

''We're hoping it's not people deeming this place to be the evil spawn of whatever,'' said Gaudet, who said that he loved hanging out with the wait staff and other patrons.

''It's a very friendly place; the atmosphere is just awesome.''

Residents had mixed reactions, though they all lamented the family's loss.

''He's another human being and I feel sorry for anybody that has to go through anything like that,'' said Paula Furbush, a lifelong Vassalboro resident who spoke out against the coffee shop at a previous public hearing. ''But do I hope this is the end of it, and anything like that? Sure. Yes. It has brought way too much notoriety to our little town. And not necessarily in a good way.''

Some neighbors said they want Crabtree to reopen.

''I hope he'll rebuild. I'd hate to see an eyesore just sit there,'' said Mike Provencher, who lives up the hill from the property.

''I think it's kind of too bad,'' Provencher said. ''It was a business that was trying to get started. Anyone paying taxes to the town of Vassalboro should be of some value.''

Randy McKiel, who lives a short distance behind the coffee shop on Mudget Hill Road, said he had not seen any problems with the shop.

''I'm just glad everybody is OK and the owner and his family made it out without getting hurt,'' he said.

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