AUGUSTA — An Occupy Augusta participant was charged with arson Wednesday after he confessed to starting a fire that burned a tent in the Capitol Park encampment of protesters, authorities said.

Matthew D. Meyer, 18, of Warren, admitted to starting the fire after turning himself in to Capitol Police on Wednesday morning, according to Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety.

Meyer was summoned by the State Fire Marshal’s Office on a charge of arson in connection with the fire, which destroyed a vacant tent in the park Monday evening, McCausland said.

However, Meyer told his fellow protesters the fire was an accident, according to three other occupiers at the encampment Wednesday night. He told them he was burning the frayed ends of a tarp which, with other material, covered the tent, and the tent then caught on fire, they said.

“It was an accident, he was playing around, burning (material hanging off the homemade tent) and it got out of control,” said Occupy Augusta participant Timothy Jennings, of Augusta. “He got scared and fled. He’s 18. He apologized to us.”

The arson charge comes as both the occupiers and state await a key decision from a federal court judge. The occupiers have requested an injunction to prevent the state from requiring a permit for the Capitol Park protest and preventing Capitol Police from evicting the Occupy Augusta encampment if they do not get a permit. The park is owned and managed by the state.

Judge Nancy Torreson said during a federal district court hearing Monday afternoon in Bangor that she expected to decide within 48 hours whether to issue the injunction. She had not issued her decision as of Wednesday night.

Diane Messer, of Liberty, a plaintiff in the case, said she supports Meyer and said confessing was a noble thing for him to do.

McCausland confirmed that Meyer said he was burning frayed pieces of the tarp ends when the rest of the tent caught fire.

“We’re unclear on the purpose of burning the tattered, frayed tarp,” McCausland said. “He made no effort to put out the fire.”

Meyer had been staying at the encampment for about a month and was intending to move into the vacant tent, according to Capitol Police Chief Russell Gauvin.

Meyer has been banned from all state-owned property in Augusta, McCausland said, and is scheduled to appear in Kennebec County Superior Court in Augusta Feb. 14.

Meyer, who told police he was a volunteer firefighter, was interviewed by authorities Monday evening and at the time he denied any involvement with the fire, according to McCausland.

“Obviously he had a change of heart this morning,” McCausland said Wednesday.

Ed Bonenfant, an occupier from Augusta, said Meyer was a regular Occupy Augusta participant. He confessed to accidently starting the fire to other participants Tuesday night, Bonefant said. They walked with him as he went to turn himself in Wednesday morning to show their continued support for him.

“We had suspicions it was someone in camp, honestly,” Bonenfant said. “He said it was an accident and I have no reason not to believe him. We fully support him. He manned up and admitted it.”

Occupy Augusta participants said they hoped the individual actions of Meyer would not tarnish the image of the group or its populist message, which includes speaking out against the influence of money and corporations in the political system.

“Everyone acts for themselves,” Bonenfant said. “Sometimes the blame gets shifted to a group.”

Messer described the case as “an individual with a lapse in judgment, with no malevolent intentions at all.”

“We’re not perfect. None of us are angels,” she said. “I don’t think this should get in the way of the judge’s decision whatsoever.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

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