May 3, 2013

Boy, 12, set fire in Lewiston, police say

Officials say they know the motive for the arson, which destroyed three buildings and caused $1 million in damage.

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

LEWISTON — Authorities have charged a 12-year-old boy with intentionally setting the fire Monday in downtown Lewiston that destroyed three buildings, displaced 75 people and caused $1 million worth of damage.

click image to enlarge

Lewiston Police Chief Michael Bussiere announces that a 12-year-old boy has been charged with setting Monday's fire that displaced 75 people, at a news conference at the Lewiston Police Department on Thursday.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

A demolition crew cleans up the rubble from the Blake Street fire in Lewiston on Thursday. Lewiston police have charged a 12-year-old boy with setting the fire.

Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

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The boy, whose name was not released, is in police custody but has not made a court appearance, Lewiston Police Chief Michael Bussiere said during a news conference Thursday afternoon.

The boy faces three felony counts of arson. Bussiere said it will be up to a judge to determine whether the boy is tried as an adult. He is being held in a juvenile detention facility and is expected to be arraigned in juvenile court by Monday. 

"We were extremely fortunate that no one was either killed or injured," Bussiere said. 

Police and fire investigators interviewed more than 50 witnesses in the case, a process that included multiple interviews with the boy. However, Bussiere released few details Thursday and did not reveal how or why the fire was allegedly set.

Bussiere said investigators identified a motive through interviews with the suspect, who is said to be from the Lewiston-Auburn area. Bussiere did not say whether the boy lived in the building, which spanned four addresses from 105 to 111 Blake St.

He said fire investigators made an effort to interview people who gathered to watch the fire. Hundreds stood for hours as firefighters battled the flames into Monday evening.

Authorities said the fire was set behind 105 Blake St. and spread to that building and two others, at 172 Bates St. and 82 Pine St. The buildings on Blake and Bates streets have been torn down. The Pine Street building is due to be torn down next week.

No one was hurt, but several pets died.

The blaze grew so large that firefighters worried about having enough water pressure, and the plume of smoke could be seen on weather radar 35 miles away in Portland.

On March 19, city officials condemned the building where the fire began, but six of its nine units were still occupied when flames were first spotted as they engulfed a back porch. 

Code enforcement officers had been moving the tenants from the property, which was owned by Sean Watkins of LA Property Management in Lewiston but had fallen into bank ownership.

Watkins did not answer a call for comment Thursday.

Interviews with a former resident of the building where the fire began and documents released by the fire department raised questions about whether the building had working smoke detectors at the time of the blaze.

The property was last given a routine inspection by the fire department in June 2010. Records show firefighters found violations, including debris on front and rear porches that served as fire escapes.

None of the building's nine units had carbon monoxide detectors at that time, and one hallway smoke detector was missing or inoperable, the records show.

When firefighters returned for a re-inspection in November 2010, a second smoke detector was found inoperable in a different part of the building. In a third inspection, less than three weeks later, firefighters found nothing had changed at the property since the second visit.

At Thursday's news conference, Lewiston Fire Chief Paul LeClair said there is no reason to believe the smoke detectors were not working at the time of the fire.

Other questions have arisen about the working order of fire alarms in a second building that caught fire after the Blake Street property was fully engulfed.

Harvey Brooks, who lived at 172 Bates St., said his building's fire alarms and hallway safety lights were not working.

Brooks, a former firefighter, said one smoke detector had been painted over. He said he complained to the city's code enforcement office four or five months ago after a grease fire drew firefighters to the building. 

Deputy Chief Bruce McKay, who supervises the fire department's safety inspection program, said the routine inspections are snapshots of conditions that sometimes change rapidly because of tenants' behavior.

The fire department's proactive inspection program attempts to reach every tenement building in the city, of which there are hundreds, at least once every two to three years.

McKay said the violations at the Blake Street building are common. "There isn't a building out there without something wrong," he said.

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@pressherald.com

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