December 26, 2012

Windham fire explanation too 'sensational' for investigators

Court papers say Donato Corsetti staged the fire to collect on an insurance policy.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The owner of an apartment building in Windham that burned on Dec. 7 is now suspected of setting the fire and then tying himself up to make it look like a mob hit.

click image to enlarge

This Monday, Dec. 10 photo shows a three-unit Windham apartment building on Gray Road that was damaged by fire. The owner of the building is now suspected of setting the fire and then tying himself up to make it look like a mob hit.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

This Monday, Dec. 10 photo shows a three-unit Windham apartment building on Gray Road that was damaged by fire. The owner of the building is now suspected of setting the fire and then tying himself up to make it look like a mob hit.

Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer

Investigators with the state Fire Marshal's Office have not charged Donato Corsetti, 66, owner of the Corsetti's Market next to the apartment building. But officials say in court papers that they believe he set the fire to collect on an insurance policy.

"Donato's objective was to make the event so sensational by staging an attack that investigators would not suspect him as the perpetrator," wrote Christopher Stanford, senior investigator for the Fire Marshal's Office, in an affidavit in support of a search warrant.

Only Corsetti was hurt in the fire. People who were in an adjacent apartment got out safely.

Corsetti's apartment building and his own home had recently been foreclosed on, and he still owed more than $174,000, according to the affidavit filed Dec. 17 in Cumberland County Unified Criminal Court.

He was served with eviction papers three days before the fire.

Reached Wednesday, Corsetti declined comment, saying his lawyer had advised him "not to say anything."

Firefighters were called to 447 Gray Road on Dec. 7 for a report of smoke coming from the middle apartment in the two-story, three-unit apartment building.

A worker at the nearby market saw Corsetti in a window of the apartment, then saw him smash the window with a floor lamp and stick his head out, the affidavit says. She also saw smoke. The woman ran to the building, pushed open the door and got Corsetti to safety.

According to the affidavit, Corsetti, with a lamp cord cinched around his neck with a slip knot, told the woman to loosen it and said he was losing consciousness.

Some of the cord, still attached to a floor lamp, was wrapped around his wrists -- which were behind his back -- and knotted, the affidavit says.

Corsetti was freed and taken by ambulance to Maine Medical Center in Portland, where he was treated for scrapes on his forehead and wrists and a possible concussion before being released, the affidavit says.

When investigators questioned Corsetti at the hospital, he told them he had been showing the apartment to someone who was interested in renting it when someone he recognized from a previous encounter jumped him from behind, the affidavit says.

Corsetti said the man had attacked him in October after being shown the apartment, the affidavit says.

Corsetti told police at the time of the fire that he did not want an investigation because he did not want to scare his employees.

While he was in the hospital, his wife, Belinda Corsetti, filed a claim with the insurance company.

An investigator with a dog trained to sniff flammable liquids found several areas in the apartment with traces of flammable liquid, and determined that the fire was set.

When police tried to interview Corsetti again, he said he had a concussion and his wife had told him he needed to rest and couldn't speak with them, the affidavit says.

Investigators then interviewed Corsetti on the day after the fire, at the police station, where he described two attackers, one tall and skinny and the other short and stocky, though he did not offer more details.

He said the men had nothing in their hands, there were no flammable liquids stored in the apartment and the lamps for the vacant apartment were kept in the closet.

Investigators challenged his story, and he changed it.

"He answered by telling us that he had lied the first couple of times and that it was actually a 'set up' by an organized crime group from Rhode Island that he would not identify as the Mafia," Stanford wrote in the affidavit. "He told us that they had come after him by mistake and that he was going to make some calls down in Rhode Island and have the problem taken care of."

"We asked him why he was not poured with ignitable liquid if it was a hit on him, and he answered by saying they just wanted to scare him," the affidavit says. He asked them not to investigate any further.

Corsetti initially agreed to a polygraph exam but then backed out, saying he had to check with his doctor because he had a heart condition, the affidavit says.

Corsetti admitted to being behind on all of his debt payments except for the store, though he denied that the apartment building had been foreclosed on, according to the affidavit. Officers later learned that Corsetti's home also had been foreclosed on.

At the time of the foreclosure, the properties were worth $250,000 and Corsetti owed more than $425,000. He was left owing more than $175,000 after Fannie Mae bought the property in foreclosure on Nov. 29, the affidavit says.

The insurance policy on the properties was for $509,800, the affidavit says.

On Dec. 11, Corsetti told police that he did not want to cooperate any more and gave them his attorney's name, the affidavit says.

Stanford wrote that he believes Corsetti did not remember that the apartment door opened inward, and after setting the fire and wrapping the cord around his hands, he had trouble getting out, which is why he was seen in the window beside the door.

Stanford said he believes that Corsetti set the fire and no one was trying to kill him.

"Donato did not have any trace of ignitable liquid on his clothing, which in my experience is not the case when a perpetrator is trying to kill someone with the use of such liquids and fire," Stanford wrote.

Sgt. Joel Davis of the Fire Marshal's Office said Corsetti has not been charged with any crime. "We're still finishing up some things before we present everything to the district attorney."

Corsetti has had two previous fires, one that destroyed the store in 1998 and one that damaged his home in 2007. Davis said investigators would take another look at the reports from those fires, which were deemed accidental, but they happened so long ago that it's unlikely any new investigation would be started.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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