PALMYRA — Carissa Jo Turner set her Palmyra house on fire in 2007, a desperate act to collect insurance money.
“There was some financial difficulty in the family. That is the reason why she did it,” Turner’s court-appointed attorney, John Martin, of Skowhegan, said last week. “I think she feels more freedom now, ironically, than she did before. I think it’s a huge relief that she was able to come clean and take responsibility.”
Turner, 38, pleaded guilty Nov. 21 to setting a fire at the home she shared with her husband and two children to collect insurance, District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said.
Officials say it highlights a trend in recent years: When the economy goes sour, people get desperate.
State Fire Marshal Joe Thomas said an increase in arson fires can reflect that financial strain.
“Obviously, when the economy tanks, you start to see some activity with fire; and the increase will actually carry out two to three years beyond when a recession hits,” Thomas said. “At the first sign of a bad economy, people do what they have to do to get by — cutting back on things, not spending money. When people get to the point of desperation, it’s when everything they have for possibilities has already been used, then you really see that act of desperation to try to get out from underneath the debt.”
Turner is serving a two-year prison sentence, according to Maloney. An arson charge against Turner’s husband, Trevor Turner, 41, was dismissed.
“His case was dismissed because Carissa took 100 percent responsibility for the arson and said that he did not have anything to do with it,” Maloney said. “She lit some papers on fire and put those papers in a box filled with more paper, and that’s what started the fire. She did it to receive the insurance money.”
Arson in Maine spiked at 243 reported cases in 2007, the same year Turner set her house on fire. The reported number of arson cases has remained at high levels since 2009.
Nearly 60 percent of the arson cases in Maine in 2012, the latest year records are available, involved a business or residential structure, according to statistics published by the state Uniform Crime Reporting program. Unlike Carissa Jo Turner, more than half of the people arrested for arson were 17 years old or younger — 85.5 percent of them male.
The clearance rate, or arrest rate, resulting in an arson conviction in 2012 was 32.7 percent of cases reported, according to the statistics.
Turner received a sentence of eight years in prison, with all but two years suspended, and four years of probation once she is released. Two children, then ages 6 and 11, were in school when the fire was reported, and they are now living with their father, Maloney said.
She said the Turners still are married to each other.
Arson is a class A felony, punishable by up to 30 years in prison, a maximum $50,000 in fines and four years’ probation.
Newport attorney William Logan, who was hired by Trevor Turner, later withdrew from the case. Attorney Woody Hanstein, of Farmington, who later represented Trevor Turner, said Carissa Jo Turner was a good person who did a foolish thing and her husband tried to be loyal and supportive to the woman he loved for as long as he could.
“The reason this ordeal lasted so long for Trevor was because he tried to take responsibility for this and didn’t want anything to happen to his wife,” Hanstein said. “Every day in the legal system we see situations where a good person has made a mistake and done something wrong.”
Fire was reported at the Turners’ two-story, gambrel-roof home on Libby Hill Road in Palmyra about 1 p.m. Sept. 17, 2007. No one was home when the fire was reported. Flames were pouring through the walls and windows when firefighters arrived, according to a newspaper account of the fire.
The Morning Sentinel reported at the time of the fire that Trevor Turner had left two of his four dogs inside the house. Someone had freed the dogs and started removing bicycles, motorcycles and other equipment from a nearby shed when he returned home.
The family had lived in the home for 13 years.
Attorney John Martin said in March that the Office of State Fire Marshall recently had received new information on the case, which otherwise had become a cold-case arson. The Turners later were indicted on arson charges by a Somerset County grand jury and were arrested.
Carissa Jo Turner originally pleaded not guilty to the charge, but later admitted having started the fire.
Calls placed to the number listed in the telephone book for the Turner home were not answered.
Nationally, based on data reported by fire departments in a survey by National Fire Protection Association, there were 26,000 intentionally set structure fires in 2012, the latest figures available, a decrease of 1.9 percent drop from the previous year.
Those intentionally set structure fires resulted in an estimated 180 civilian deaths, a decrease of 5.3 percent from 2011. The structure fires also resulted in $581,000,000 in property loss, a decrease of 3.3 percent.
During 2005-2009, an estimated 306,300 intentional fires were reported to U.S. fire departments each year, with associated annual losses of 440 civilian deaths, 1,360 civilian injuries, and $1.3 billion in direct property damage, according to the association. Eighteen percent of the arson fires occurred in structures, which accounted for 88 percent of civilian deaths, 82 percent of civilian injuries, and 81 percent of direct property damage caused by intentional fires.
Sixty percent of intentional structure fires occurred in residential properties, 55 percent in private homes, such as the Turner’s residence in 2007.
Nearly two-thirds of intentional structure fires occurred in structures that were occupied and operating, and those fires account for most of the associated losses, according to the survey.