PORTLAND — Police have tentatively identified the woman whose body was found in a burning apartment Monday evening.

Her accused killer, meanwhile, remained in Cumberland County Jail pending a judge’s decision about bail.

The victim, 18-year-old Zoe Sarnacki, was a South Portland resident and former Deering High School student, according to a Police Department press release. Police said the state medical examiner is performing a DNA test to confirm Sarnacki’s identification.

Police Chief James Craig said Chad Gurney, 27, was taken into custody early Tuesday morning in Old Orchard Beach and charged with Sarnacki’s murder and arson. 

Gurney was arraigned Wednesday afternoon in Cumberland County Superior Court. He did not enter a plea.

The attorney general’s office requested a psychological evaluation of Gurney, and Justice Roland Cole agreed. Cole said he will consider setting bail at a later date.

At the request of defense attorney Robert LeBrasseur, Cole also ordered that the 463 Cumberland Ave. apartment where Sarnacki was found be left undisturbed. Prosecutors said they were concerned the landlord may have made changes in the apartment Tuesday night.

Portland firefighters responded at 6:35 p.m. Monday to a call about smoke in the area of Congress Street, near Rite Aid, Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said in a press conference at police headquarters. While they were en route, LaMontagne said, the department got another call saying the fire was closer to Avon Street. Neighbors pointed firefighters to 463 Cumberland Ave., where the third-floor apartment was on fire.

LaMontagne said the fire was put out quickly. That was when firefighters found the body in the apartment, where Gurney reportedly lived.

The woman’s injuries, LaMontagne said, “did not seem consistent with a typical fire death.” Police and the state fire marshal’s office were called to investigate; officials Tuesday declined to discuss the cause of the fire.

Craig said police found some evidence of trauma on Sarnacki’s body. An autopsy was performed Tuesday, police Capt. Vern Malloch said. But police have not released a cause of death.

Craig said the relationship between Sarnacki and Gurney is not clear, but she did not live in the apartment.

Outside the court room Wednesday, friends of Sarnacki described her relationship with Gurney as “once a friendly acquaintance.”

Craig said police caught a break in their search for Gurney in the early hours Tuesday, after Officer Jason King pulled over a vehicle for failing to stop at a stop sign near Lincoln Park. The driver, who police said knew they were looking for Gurney, was talking to the suspect on his cell phone. King spent 90 minutes on the phone with Gurney before the suspect told the officer where he was and that he would surrender.

Gurney was taken into custody at the Crest Motel on East Grand Avenue in Old Orchard Beach, with the help of Old Orchard Beach police. Malloch said Gurney had “access to a weapon” at the time. 

Craig said investigators are still working the case, trying to figure out what happened in the third-floor apartment. He said they believe the fire was set after the woman died. Malloch said Gurney does not have a significant arrest record and police do not believe drugs were involved.

The Fire Department had a block of Cumberland Avenue closed off for about 12 hours while police and fire officials investigated. 

Two firefighters were injured fighting the blaze. One was treated and released for a broken leg, according to LaMontagne. He would not say what happened to the other firefighter, only that he was still in the hospital, but that his injury is not life threatening.  

This story was updated on May 27, 2009.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or [email protected]




Sidebar Elements

p-arson death-052709.jpgChad Gurney, 27, was arrested early Tuesday morning in Old Orchard Beach and charged with murder and arson. 
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