January 20

Maine fire marshal: Rise in arson reflects weak economy

Officials say a Palmyra case highlights a trend of desperation when the economy goes sour.

By DOUG HARLOW Morning Sentinel

PALMYRA — Carissa Jo Turner set her Palmyra house on fire in 2007, a desperate act to collect insurance money.

“There was some financial difficulty in the family. That is the reason why she did it,” Turner’s court-appointed attorney, John Martin, of Skowhegan, said last week. “I think she feels more freedom now, ironically, than she did before. I think it’s a huge relief that she was able to come clean and take responsibility.”

Turner, 38, pleaded guilty Nov. 21 to setting a fire at the home she shared with her husband and two children to collect insurance, District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said.

Officials say it highlights a trend in recent years: When the economy goes sour, people get desperate.

State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said an increase in arson fires can reflect that financial strain.

“Obviously, when the economy tanks, you start to see some activity with fire; and the increase will actually carry out two to three years beyond when a recession hits,” Thomas said. “At the first sign of a bad economy, people do what they have to do to get by — cutting back on things, not spending money. When people get to the point of desperation, it’s when everything they have for possibilities has already been used, then you really see that act of desperation to try to get out from underneath the debt.”

Turner is serving a two-year prison sentence, according to Maloney. An arson charge against Turner’s husband, Trevor Turner, 41, was dismissed.

“His case was dismissed because Carissa took 100 percent responsibility for the arson and said that he did not have anything to do with it,” Maloney said. “She lit some papers on fire and put those papers in a box filled with more paper, and that’s what started the fire. She did it to receive the insurance money.”

Arson in Maine spiked at 243 reported cases in 2007, the same year Turner set her house on fire. The reported number of arson cases has remained at high levels since 2009.

Nearly 60 percent of the arson cases in Maine in 2012, the latest year records are available, involved a business or residential structure, according to statistics published by the state Uniform Crime Reporting program. Unlike Carissa Jo Turner, more than half of the people arrested for arson were 17 years old or younger – 85.5 percent of them male.

The clearance rate, or arrest rate, resulting in an arson conviction in 2012 was 32.7 percent of cases reported, according to the statistics.

Turner received a sentence of eight years in prison, with all but two years suspended, and four years of probation once she is released. Two children, then ages 6 and 11, were in school when the fire was reported, and they are now living with their father, Maloney said.

She said the Turners still are married to each other.

Arson is a class A felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, a maximum $50,000 in fines and four years’ probation.

Newport attorney William Logan, who was hired by Trevor Turner, later withdrew from the case. Attorney Woody Hanstein, of Farmington, who later represented Trevor Turner, said Carissa Jo Turner was a good person who did a foolish thing and her husband tried to be loyal and supportive to the woman he loved for as long as he could.

“The reason this ordeal lasted so long for Trevor was because he tried to take responsibility for this and didn’t want anything to happen to his wife,” Hanstein said. “Every day in the legal system we see situations where a good person has made a mistake and done something wrong.”

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