VASSALBORO – Police are searching for an Augusta man suspected of setting the fire that destroyed the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop last year, state investigators said Tuesday.

An arrest warrant has been issued for Raymond J. Bellavance Jr., 49, who is being charged with arson, investigators said. Bellavance was in custody on an unrelated charge until Friday, when he was released from jail, according to the Kennebec County sheriff.

The shop’s owner, Donald Crabtree, said Tuesday that he met Bellavance once, in March 2009, a few weeks after opening the business in Vassalboro where topless waitresses served coffee and doughnuts.

Bellavance alleged illegal behavior by his ex-girlfriend, a waitress at the shop, and demanded that she be fired, Crabtree said. He 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 said. “That was the last dealing I had with him.”

Crabtree said the waitress worked for the coffee shop until last week.

Investigators say Bellavance set the shop on fire during the predawn 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 after a passing ambulance crew noticed the blaze about 1 a.m. and woke them up.

The building was not insured. Crabtree has since buried the building debris on the site and reopened the coffee shop in a trailer. He said Tuesday he is pleased that authorities have finally identified a suspect, but he remains perplexed about the case.

“I think (Bellavance) was angry because (his ex-girlfriend) was working here, making it on her own,” Crabtree said. “I’m angry because I lost my whole life savings over something very stupid. I could have lost my kids.”

Kennebec County Superior Court issued an arrest warrant for Bellavance on Monday, said Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety. Bellavance has not been seen for several days, he said.

Authorities confirmed that Bellavance had been jailed until Friday, three days before the arrest warrant was issued. Sheriff Randall Liberty said Bellavance was held in 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, Bellavance was released after making arrangements with the court to pay the fine, Liberty said. “At the time, we knew the (arson) charges were close to being pending and the investigating officer was notified,” he said.

Asked why Bellavance was released, Liberty said, “I’m not sure what happened.”

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

Bellavance has a criminal history in Kennebec County dating back at least to 1979.

“He’s had 33 separate criminal incidents since he’s become an adult,” District Attorney Evert Fowle said Tuesday. “He’s spent the majority of his adult life incarcerated.”

McCausland said “the specifics of why (Bellavance) 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.”

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

At town meeting in June, voters approved an ordinance to regulate where, when and how “sexually oriented businesses” may operate in town.

The fire broke out just 4½ hours after Crabtree finished a meeting with the Vassalboro Planning Board at which he sought permission to add music and dancing and expand the hours of operation — essentially making the business more like a strip club.

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.”

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,” he said.


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