The Cumberland County District Attorney said Wednesday there has been no decision on whether to file charges against the owner of a Portland apartment building that burned on Nov. 1, killing six occupants.

Stephanie Anderson said Wednesday that a deputy chief for the Portland Fire Department was not authorized to disclose the status of an ongoing investigation when he told city councilors Tuesday that charges are likely. Anderson said prosecutors are still weeks away from deciding whether Gregory Nisbet, who owns 20-24 Noyes St., should be charged with manslaughter or any other crime.

“It’s a very emotional situation, but we need to be objective and deliberate,” Anderson said in an interview Wednesday morning. “This is very important to us and we’re going to take our time. We need to get this right.”

At a news conference later in the day, Anderson held up a thick binder and six compact discs of investigatory material, including photos, videos, interviews and reports, that her office will review over the next two weeks to determine whether to file charges.

Anderson told reporters that she couldn’t recall a case where the DA’s office has prosecuted a landlord for a fatal fire.

But Assistant Attorney General Lisa Marchese said in an interview she could recall two instances in the past 25 years when the state filed charges against landlords for fatal fires. A Lewiston landlord was charged with code violations, and a Biddeford landlord pleaded guilty to reckless conduct, she said.

The Biddeford fire occurred in April 2006. A 3-year-old boy who was playing with matches died in the blaze. Charges were brought against a Massachusetts landlord because the apartment where the family lived was built illegally and only had one way out.

“It’s very, very difficult to prove that a code violation caused a death,” Marchese said.

Attorney John Veilleux said in an email Wednesday that he is representing Nisbet in series of civil lawsuits that have already been filed by the families of the victims, but that another attorney, Matthew Nicholas, would likely represent his client if the DA files criminal charges.

Nichols said he is confident Anderson will review the evidence carefully and make a decision based on the law, rather than public pressure. He declined to discuss how Nisbet, who has not responded to interview requests, was holding up amid public scrutiny.

Veilleux, however, said he believes it would be a mistake to file criminal charges. “This fire is a tragedy for all, but it is not a criminal matter,” he said.


On Tuesday night, Keith Gautreau, Portland’s acting deputy chief for fire prevention and community outreach, told the City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee that the DA’s office would be prosecuting Nisbet. He did not say what the charges would be. Anderson could not be reached Tuesday night to immediately respond to the comment.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office also said Tuesday that charges appear likely.

Fire officials said the fire on Nov. 1 was caused by a cigarette butt placed in a receptacle that was not being used properly.

Gautreau said the fire went undetected for a “considerable amount of time,” that tenants had disabled smoke detectors, and a rear exit was blocked.

Although the fire was deemed accidental, the case was forwarded to the district attorney because fire officials believe the property was being illegally operated as a rooming house. The legal use of the property is as a two-family unit.

Code officers had also responded to 16 complaints about the property dating back to 2003 for issues ranging from improper storage of combustible materials to a possibly illegal third-floor unit. City officials would not comment on allegations of an illegal unit, citing the ongoing investigation.


Anderson said she and Assistant District Attorney Bud Ellis, who is assigned to the case, met Friday with Gautreau, members of the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Portland Police Department to review the evidence. She considered it a private meeting, the substance of which was not intended to be made public.

Prosecutors must determine whether there is evidence that Nisbet ignored requests by tenants to fix issues such as broken smoke detectors at the apartment, as claimed in civil lawsuits. Such actions could indicate Nisbet was criminally reckless in causing the deaths – a threshold that would allow prosecutors to pursue charges ranging from manslaughter to code violations.

“We have to look at whether or not the owner was reckless, or whether or not this was just a tragic, horrific accident,” said Anderson, who noted that the AG’s office would also be reviewing the case.

Daniel Young, a senior investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said investigators interviewed Nisbet shortly after the fire. Investigators have also interviewed neighbors, witnesses and current and former tenants, he said.

Anderson said it was unusual to hold a news conference without announcing charges.

“We’re obviously very heartbroken for the people who lost their loved ones,” Anderson said. “I think this is the first time in 24 years I have called a press conference at the very beginning of an investigation. I know this is so important to so many people, so I wanted to get the message out.”

Nisbet has also come under fire for another property he owns, at 186-188 Dartmouth St. in Portland. Tenants at 188 Dartmouth St. complained about their living conditions after the fire on Noyes Street.

The city inspected the property Dec. 15 and cited numerous violations. Inspectors allege that the building was also being run as a rooming house because tenants had individual rental agreements with Nisbet and had placed locks on the outsides of their bedroom doors.

Nisbet did not abide by the city’s deadline of Feb. 2 to correct the violations. Over that period of time, the tenants were evicted and the apartment was apparently taken over by squatters as living conditions deteriorated. After the Press Herald reported the living conditions, the city condemned the building and boarded it up.