VASSALBORO — Police are searching for an Augusta man who is wanted in connection with the June 2009 arson that destroyed the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop, police said today.

The man, 49-year-old Raymond J. Bellavance Jr., was in police custody on an unrelated charge until Friday, when he was released from jail, according to the Kennebec County sheriff.

Meanwhile, shop owner Donald Crabtree said in an interview today that he met Bellavance once in March 2009, a few weeks after opening the business where topless waitresses served coffee and doughnuts on Route 3 in Vassalboro.

Bellavance made accusations of illegal behavior by his ex-girlfriend, a waitress at the shop, and demanded she be fired, according to Crabtree. Crabtree said Bellavance “did threaten me that, if I didn’t have her fired, he would have me shut down.”

“I said I wouldn’t fire her until I had evidence myself; I talked to her and she said it wasn’t true,” Crabtree recalled. “And I told him (Bellavance) to go right ahead and try it — what was I doing wrong? That was the last dealing I had with him.”

Now, investigators allege that Bellavance was the sole person responsible for setting the coffee shop on fire during the wee hours of June 3, while Crabtree and his family, including his daughters, their boyfriends and their two young children, slept inside apartments in the building. All seven people escaped injury after a passing ambulance crew noticed the blaze about 1 a.m. and woke them up.

Crabtree did not have the building insured. He has since buried the former building’s debris on site and reopened the coffee shop in a trailer, starting his business from scratch.

Crabtree said Tuesday he was pleased authorities had finally identified a suspect after nearly a year, but he remained perplexed about the case.

“I think (Bellavance) was angry because she was working here, making it on her own, and he didn’t like that,” Crabtree said. “I’m angry because I lost my whole life savings over something very stupid. I could have lost my kids, and I lost a lot of money that night.”

Man on the run

Kennebec County Superior Court issued an arrest warrant for Bellavance on Monday, according to Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. Bellavance, who lives at 3 Jefferson St. in Augusta, had not been seen for several days, McCausland said.

The 10-month-long investigation has been conducted by the state Fire Marshal’s Office and the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office. The Maine Drug Enforcement Agency also assisted, McCausland said, because “it is not unusual for law enforcement to ask” for the agency’s help and “they have a lot of sources that sometimes provide leads.”

McCausland said police know Bellavance was in the Augusta area recently but officers “have not been able to locate him.”

Authorities confirmed that Bellavance had been jailed up until Friday — three days before the arrest warrant was issued for the arson case. According to Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, Bellavance was held at the Kennebec County Jail on March 25 after a court hearing on $1,840 in unpaid fines for driving as a habitual offender.

On Friday, however, Bellavance was released after making arrangements with the court to pay the fine, according to Liberty.

“At the time, we knew the (arson) charges were close to being pending and the investigating officer was notified,” Liberty said.

Asked why Bellavance was released just days before the arson warrant was issued, Liberty said, “I’m not sure what happened.”

Arson is a Class A felony, among the most serious charges in Maine.

McCausland said “the specifics of why he has been charged with arson is something we’re not talking about publicly at this point, other than we did confirm his former girlfriend was a waitress there.”

“We think that friends and associates know where he is,” McCausland said, “and hopefully one of them will give us a call, or someone from the general public will recognize him.”

Suspect ‘since day one’

The coffee shop opened Feb. 23, 2009, in a former motel on Route 3 just over the Augusta line, drawing worldwide media attention to Vassalboro, a rural community with a population of 4,200. Some critics of the business said it marred Vassalboro’s image, while supporters and patrons said if people didn’t like it they could just stay away.

In response, at town meeting last June, voters approved a new ordinance to regulate where, when and how “sexually-oriented businesses” may operate in town.

The fire came just four and a half hours after Crabtree had finished a meeting with the Vassalboro Planning Board in which he requested permission to add music, dancing and expanded hours of operation — essentially making the business more like a strip club.

The announcement of the arson suspect didn’t surprise Dan Bachelor of Ellsworth, a longtime friend of Crabtree’s who stopped by the coffee shop Tuesday morning.

“I suspected it was just what it was — a jealous boyfriend,” Bachelor said.

Crabtree said the waitress lives in Augusta and worked for the coffee shop until last week.

Bellavance has been a suspect “since day one,” according to Crabtree. Even so, “some of it’s very puzzling and I got a lot of unanswered questions myself,” Crabtree said.

Sgt. Kenneth Grimes of the state Fire Marshal’s Office said Tuesday that his agency’s criminal investigative division spent “hundreds of hours working this case.”

“These hours required nights, weekends, holidays and event time away from families to do the work,” Grimes said.

Even if Bellavance is caught and convicted of the crime, Crabtree said, he doubts he will receive any restitution.

“I was really hoping it wouldn’t come out this way — that it wouldn’t have anything to do with our circle, the workers,” Crabtree said.

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