AUGUSTA – A judge on Tuesday rejected the latest request to dismiss arson charges against Raymond Bellavance Jr., allowing Bellavance’s jury trial to start this morning in Kennebec County Superior Court.

Bellavance faces two counts of arson in the fire at the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop in Vassalboro on June 3, 2009.

Bellavance, 50, of Winthrop, is accused of setting fire to the property owned by Donald Crabtree, who operated the coffee shop with topless waitresses. One charge says Bellavance deliberately set the fire to cause damage, while the other says he recklessly endangered a person or property. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Crabtree, his two daughters, their boyfriends and the daughters’ two 4-month-old babies escaped the predawn blaze without injury when a passing ambulance crew noticed the fire and alerted them. The blaze leveled the business, which was operated in a former motel on Route 3.

The case has been high-profile, largely because the opening of the coffee shop in rural Vassalboro in February 2009 attracted national media attention.

A jury of nine women and seven men, including four alternates, was selected on Friday.

Justice Michaela Murphy ruled Tuesday that there was no misconduct by state and county investigators or the prosecutor that would cause the charges to be dismissed.

Bellavance’s attorney, Andrews Campbell, argued that investigators made threats or promises of leniency to potential witnesses — many of them imprisoned — if they would implicate Bellavance in the fire.

Campbell also argued that the state failed to disclose evidence that would clear Bellavance of the charges.

On Tuesday, Murphy ordered Deputy District Attorney Alan Kelley to provide disclosures about formal or informal threats and promises of leniency made to witnesses whom the state plans to call at trial.

Campbell said he plans to tell jurors that several people in the community were upset by the coffee shop and wanted it to close.

He also objected to Kelley having state Fire Marshal’s Office investigator Kenneth MacMaster assist him in court. Campbell said test results provided to the defense show that MacMaster cannot be excluded from those whose DNA was found on the gas cans used in the fire.

Bellavance was excluded as a source, according to previous court proceedings.

Kelley said MacMaster will testify that he collected the gas cans from the scene, took swabs from them for evidence and put them in his pickup truck.

Scott Alan Tibbetts, 38, formerly of Fairfield, an inmate at the Charleston Correctional Facility in Penobscot County, testified Tuesday that he was high on methamphetamine when he told investigators that Bellavance confessed to starting the fire. “I thought he was, but it’s not what he was admitting to,” Tibbetts said.

He said that when he was extradited from South Carolina, one officer said he could help his case by helping investigators with the Bellavance case. Tibbetts said he refused.

 

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

[email protected]