Raymond Bellavance appeared in Kennebec County Superior Court Wednesday, two weeks before he is scheduled to go on trial on charges of burning down the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop in 2009, trying to get those arson charges dismissed.

Several inmates testified before Justice Michaela Murphy that law enforcement officers questioned them about whether Bellavance said anything about the June 3, 2009, blaze in Vassalboro.

The inmates said they either knew nothing or they refused to talk about it despite an offer of more favorable treatment by authorities, including what one inmate described as immediate release.

Each of the inmates — some in green and one in an orange jail uniform — was counseled by one of two attorneys about their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Only one inmate told the judge through one of those attorneys that he planned to invoke it.

The witnesses were called by Bellavance’s attorney, Andrews Campbell, in an effort to get Bellavance’s criminal charges thrown out.

Campbell maintained the state had failed to disclose all of the evidence they collected about the fire and their resulting investigation, including the questioning of those inmates, and failed to investigate alternative suspects.

Two attorneys who previously represented Bellavance on the same charges also had filed similar accusations seeking to get the charges dismissed. In August, Murphy rejected a bid to dismiss the arson indictment and ordered the state to provide all information to the defense.

Bellavance, 50, of Winthrop, has been in jail for 18 months on the arson charges. One charge says he deliberately set the fire to cause damage; the other says he recklessly endangered a person or property. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison.

The owner of the coffee shop, Donald Crabtree, his two daughters, their boyfriends and the daughters’ two 4-month-old babies were in the building — an old motel — when the fire started during the wee hours of the morning. Everyone escaped unharmed after a passing ambulance crew noticed the fire and alerted everyone inside.

The business, which closed a few months ago, sparked controversy in Vassalboro after it opened in February 2009.

Just hours before the blaze, Crabtree had been at the Vassalboro Planning Board seeking a permit to expand the hours and the employee parking area. He also planned to have the waitresses dance to music at the Route 3 establishment.

Crabtree reopened the business in a commercial trailer on the same site in November 2009.

An affidavit compiled by Kenneth MacMaster of the state fire marshal’s office says Bellavance set the fire because he was angry about his girlfriend waitressing there and carrying on an affair with Crabtree.

The affidavit says Bellavance said he was going to burn the coffee shop and that afterward he claimed he did it.

On Wednesday, the judge indicated the state was awaiting the results of DNA testing and if those results did not arrive by Dec. 14 — the date the trial is set to begin — the trial might be postponed.

Campbell said the jail destroyed a digital tape of an officer questioning Bellavance at the Kennebec Sheriff’s office on March 31, 2010.

The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Alan Kelley, and Detective Al Morin of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s office, who was assisting with the investigation, said the tape was unnecessary since it duplicated material that was audiotaped by an investigator with the fire marshal.

Murphy had two motions filed by Campbell Nov. 25 impounded until after jury selection to prevent problems with pretrial publicity. She also ruled that the list of potential jurors and their responses to questionnaires could be shared with Bellavance, but not leave the courthouse.

She said he had a right to access the information to aid his defense.

At a previous hearing, Bellavance indicated he wanted to act as his own co-counsel at trial, and several times on Wednesday he addressed the judge directly. The witnesses, however, were questioned by Campbell.

Murphy left the record open on the motion to dismiss, so the attorneys could supply her with more information.

Jury selection is set for Dec. 9, and the trial is set for Dec. 14, 15, 19, 20, 21 and 22.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]


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