AUGUSTA — Two people from an ambulance crew and a lieutenant with the Vassalboro Fire Department set the scene for jurors on the first day of the trial of Raymond Bellavance Jr., who is charged with arson in the June 23, 2009, blaze that leveled the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop.

Robert Richards, of the Belfast Ambulance Service, said he saw a glow that day from behind the former motel that housed the coffee shop as he drove east along Route 3 about 1 a.m.

 

He and Shirley Rodgers, an emergency medical technician, radioed a fire report to their dispatchers in Waldo County, took photos of the fire, and then – once they saw a truck parked at the front of the fire – alerted the seven people living there.

 

Maurice Pare, a lieutenant with the volunteer fire department, was the first firefighter to arrive and had to wait for the fire apparatus to arrive.

 

“I could see that at that stage the fire was inside,” Pare said. “It was rolling and venting out. It had Burnt through the wall and was venting out the top.”

 

The blaze occurred within hours of the coffee owner going before the town’s planning board to seek to be open later hours and to operate a strip club as well.

 

Bellavance’s defense attorney told jurors in his opening statement that Bellavance, 50, of Winthrop, did not set the fire and was unfairly targeted as a suspect because he lived nearby.

 

“We have one theory, and virtually no physical evidence connecting Mr.Bellavance with this crime,” Campbell said.

 

Bellavance “really likes kids and people” and is not the type of person to set a fire at nighttime and endanger them.

 

“Mr,. Bellavance is a fighter and a lover but not an arsonist,” Campbell said.

 

Deputy District Attorney Alan Kelley told jurors, “You’re going to hear there was a lot of anger, jealousy, a loss of control, and a need to establish control over Raymond Bellavance’s girlfriend, Krista MacIntyre.”

 

MacIntyre was one of the waitresses employed at the coffee shop. Kelley said Bellavance had been with MacIntyre at Bellavance’s wife’s home in West Gardiner when he threatened to burn the shop down to stop MacIntyre from working there.

 

Bellavance spoke occasionally to his attorney while some witnesses responded to questions from Kelley.

 

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AUGUSTA — A judge on Tuesday rejected the latest efforts to get arson charges dismissed against Raymond Bellavance Jr., allowing his jury trial to get under way this morning in Kennebec County Superior Court.

Bellavance faces two counts of arson in the June 3, 2009, burning of the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop in Vassalboro.

Bellavance, 50, of Winthrop, is accused of setting fire to property owned by Donald Crabtree, who operated the controversial coffee shop. One charge says Bellavance deliberately set the fire to cause damage, while the other says he recklessly endangered a person or property. The charges each carry a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.

Crabtree, his two daughters, their boyfriends and the daughters’ two 4-month-old babies escaped the pre-dawn blaze without injury when a passing ambulance crew noticed the fire and alerted them. The blaze leveled the business, which was operated in a former motel on Route 3.

The case has been high profile, largely part because the February 2009 opening of the controversial coffee shop in a rural community attracted national media attention.

A jury of nine women and seven men — which includes four alternates — was selected on Friday.

Murphy ruled Tuesday that there was no misconduct by state and county investigators or by the prosecutor that would cause the charges to be dismissed.

Bellavance’s attorney, Andrews Campbell, argued that investigators made threats or promises of leniency to potential witnesses — many of them imprisoned — if they would implicate Bellavance in the fire.

Campbell also claimed the state failed to disclose evidence that would clear Bellavance of the charges.

Murphy had previously ordered the state to provide the defense with all exculpatory information, which is evidence that’s favorable to the defendant. She said Tuesday that the state was not required to provide information about interviews where people declined to cooperate.

However, she ordered the prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Alan Kelley, to provide disclosures about formal or informal threats and promises of leniency made to witnesses whom the state plans to call at trial.

“Certainly a lot of information can be brought out on cross-examination by the defense,” she told Campbell.

Campbell said he planned to tell the jurors that several people in the community were upset by the topless coffee shop business, which featured topless waitresses, and wanted it to cease.

He also objected to Kelley having State Fire Marshal’s Office investigator Kenneth MacMaster assist him in court. Campbell said test results provided to the defense show that MacMaster cannot be excluded from those whose DNA was found on the gas cans used to set the fire.

Bellavance was excluded as a donor, according to previous court proceedings.

Kelley said MacMaster will testify that he collected the gas cans from the scene, took swabs from them for evidence and placed them in his pickup truck.

The judge also refused to order Bellavance to submit to a new DNA test to verify that his DNA is as shown in the Combined DNA Index System database. Kelley said the Maine State Crime Lab personnel prefer a fresh sample if they are going to testify about it.

Among the witnesses testifying at the pretrial motion hearing on Tuesday was Scott Alan Tibbetts, 38, formerly of Fairfield, an inmate at the Charleston Correctional Facility in Penobscot County, who sat on the stand with his ankles in shackles.

He said he was first interviewed about Bellavance in South Carolina in June 2010. Bellavance was arrested in South Carolina in May 2010 on the arson charges.

Tibbetts said he was high on methamphetamines when he told investigators that Bellavance confessed to starting the fire. “I thought he was, but it’s not what he was admitting to,” Tibbetts said.

He said when he was extradited from South Carolina, one officer said he could help his case by helping investigators with the Bellavance case. Tibbetts said he refused.

Christopher Wayne Partridge, of Jackman, a longtime boyfriend of Bellavance’s daughter, testified Tuesday that he was interviewed in the Kennebec County jail between August and September 2009, but said he had no information about the case. He was interviewed more recently as well and voluntarily provided a DNA sample.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

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