Raymond Bellavance Jr. consistently has denied he burned down the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop in Vassalboro 3 1/2 years ago, a denial jurors rejected when they convicted him of arson.
Now Bellavance is appealing his Dec. 30, 2011, conviction to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case next month in Portland.
Bellavance, 51, formerly of Winthrop, is serving his 30-year sentence at the Maine State Prison in Warren and is represented in the appeal by Andrews Campbell, who also defended him at trial.
Just before his sentencing, Bellavance himself weighed in early on his appeal in a letter mailed to the Kennebec Journal and distributed at his sentencing hearing. In it, he claims to be a victim of a corrupt justice system and, at the least, “sloppy police work.”
“I make this claim because I, Raymond Bellavance, am not guilty of the crimes charged against me,” Bellavance wrote. “My name has been driven into the mind of the public as a monster convicted of arson.”
Bellavance’s hearing before the high court is scheduled for 1:15 p.m. Feb. 12. The legal arguments filed with the appeal outline the crime as well as the events that occurred during hearings and during the 10 days of the December 2011 trial itself.
The coffee shop on Route 3 in Vassalboro featured topless waitresses and waiters serving coffee and doughnuts and attracted national news media attention. The business, owned by Donald Crabtree, opened in February 2009 and sparked controversy in the community and beyond, later prompting Vassalboro and other local communities to pass municipal ordinances regulating sexually oriented businesses.
The coffee shop operated in a former motel. Seven people — Crabtree, his two daughters, their infant children and their boyfriends — were sleeping there the night of the fire, which was reported just before 1 a.m. June 3, 2009, by a passing ambulance crew. All the residents escaped the gasoline-fueled blaze without injury.
After the fire, Crabtree, who had no insurance on the building, ran the business in a commercial trailer on the same property and began to rebuild. Then he sold the property in November 2011 and moved to Greenbush.
Alan Kelley prosecuted the case for the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office; however, new Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, who came to the office after the written briefs were filed, said Tuesday she will argue the state’s position in front of the law court.
Kelley argued at trial that Bellavance burned the coffee shop because of his jealousy about Krista MacIntyre, a waitress there who was dating Bellavance as well as Crabtree and a third man. Bellavance’s estranged wife testified that Bellavance threatened to set fire to the coffee shop to stop MacIntyre from working there.
Bellavance testified in his own defense, saying he and MacIntyre were “friends with benefits,” hanging out together and having occasional, casual sex. He denied the jealousy motive.
“I have no motive to do this fire,” Bellavance said on the witness stand. “Somebody’s going to burn down someone else’s building over jealousy? That’s a little outrageous, I think.”
He testified he was seen in the area of the coffee shop early on the day it burned because he and some friends were going to plant marijuana along a road that ran off Route 3, but were unable to do so because their van had a flat tire.
Bellavance spent almost four hours on the witness stand, his tone confident and blunt, a term he used to characterize himself.
Campbell’s written filings allege seven areas in which he believes errors occurred in the case:
* Improper indictment on two counts of arson for the same offense, making Bellavance subject to double jeopardy. The prosecution claims this was not the case and says, “The sentencing court appropriately merged the two counts into one conviction and imposed one sentence,” so Bellavance was not harmed.
* Denial of a fair trial because a defense witness, Thomas Mulkern, changed his story and testified against Bellavance after receiving immunity from prosecution. Mulkern testified he watched Bellavance pour the gasoline on the building and set it on fire.
* Refusal to grant either a mistrial or motions to dismiss on the basis of evidence that was withheld from defense.
* Denial of a fair trial because of extensive publicity before and during the trial. Campbell had sought a change of venue, which was denied.
* Violation of Bellavance’s due process rights because some witnesses opted to exercise their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
* Denial of a fair trial because the jury was rushed and the defense did not have enough time to prepare. The trial took place in the last couple of weeks of 2011.
* Exclusion of witness testimony.
“The lack of time allowed to investigate and to prepare and to recall prior witnesses and important new witnesses, is both preserved and plain and obvious error which substantially affected the outcome of the case,” Campbell wrote in his brief.
He concluded his 57-page filing by saying, “The interests of justice require that (Bellavance) should be granted a new trial.”
Kelley, in asking the justices to uphold Bellavance’s conviction, wrote in one section, “There is simply nothing on the record that supports (Bellavance’s) contention that time pressure deprived him of a fair trial.”
Betty Adams — 621-5631