AUGUSTA – A jury on Friday afternoon found an Augusta man not guilty of arson charges involving a fire two years ago at his Federal Street home.
Alan L. Crocker, 63, was accused of two counts of arson in the Jan. 28, 2010, blaze that sent a large plume of black smoke over the State House dome on a clear day.
The four-day trial took place in Kennebec County Superior Court, and the jury of 10 women and two men deliberated three hours Friday before returning a verdict at about 5:30 p.m.
As soon as he heard the two not guilty verdicts read aloud, Crocker broke down in tears, laying his head on the defense table. A man and a woman on a bench in the back of the courtroom also sobbed and hugged one another.
Crocker declined comment following the verdict, referring questions to his attorney, Mitchell Flick.
“Our system worked the way it’s designed to,” Flick said. “A man who was not guilty was found not guilty. It’s a good day for us all.”
One count of arson in the indictment in Kennebec County Superior Court had alleged Crocker intentionally set the fire to collect insurance money, while the other count alleged the fire itself recklessly endangered people or property.
Crocker told investigators he arrived home after running errands that morning to see smoke in the kitchen and flames on a bag of wood pellets in the dining room.
He removed his two parakeets from the house before he called 911. Crocker suffered smoke inhalation and was taken by ambulance from the scene to an Augusta hospital.
Crocker opted not to testify at his trial, and the case centered largely on the opinions of three fire investigators, one from the Office of the State Fire Marshal in Maine, one from Crocker’s insurer and one who investigated the case for the defense.
The defense’s fire investigator testified that the fire could have started by spontaneous combustion inside a pellet bag and also was possibly a result of a cigarette dropped between a bag of wood pellets and the dining room’s plywood wall.
A 40-pound bag of wood pellets lay on the red carpet in the back of court room. The jury was also shown a piece of brown wall paneling with black char crowning it.
“This case is based on circumstantial evidence,” Assistant District Attorney Paul Rucha told jurors in his closing argument. “There was no direct evidence that Mr. Crocker started his dining room on fire.”
However, he said Crocker was the only person at home that morning and had motive and opportunity.
Rucha said Crocker had financial problems. Crocker had filed for bankruptcy protection in federal court in 2009.
Rucha also questioned why the two parakeets in the home appeared to have no ill effects from the smoke while Crocker, who was apparently in the room for a shorter time, needed treatment for smoke inhalation.
“The reality is, the state does not know what happened,” said defense attorney Flick in his closing argument.
He also disputed the home insurance amount, saying: “My client got $75,000, and $63,000 of that was owed on the home equity loan.”
Flick said Crocker is significantly worse off than before the fire.
“He has no house, no belongings any more,” Flick said. “He’s living in an apartment right now.”
Flick said testimony during the trial showed Crocker was current on all his debts, including his mortgage, at the time of the fire.
Betty Adams — 621-5631