AUGUSTA — A faded red, partially blackened 5-gallon gasoline container shown to jurors on the opening day of Raymond Bellavance Jr.’s arson trial remains without an owner.

It was one of the dozens of items — mostly photographs — admitted as evidence Wednesday in the trial of Bellavance, 50, of Winthrop, who is charged with two counts of arson in the June 23, 2009, blaze that leveled the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop on Route 3 in Vassalboro.

The container was not one of the gasoline cans used by Joseph Murphy to fuel either the lawn mower or other machinery he used to maintain the coffee shop grounds for shop owner Donald Crabtree.

Murphy and his fiancé, Crystal Crabtree, one of Donald Crabtree’s twin daughters, were among the seven people who escaped the pre-dawn blaze to testify Wednesday in Kennebec County Superior Court.

Bellavance’s DNA was not found on the gas can. Chief fire investigator in the case Kenneth MacMaster, from the state fire marshal’s office, is the only person whose DNA can not be excluded from material found on the bottom of the gas can, according to information at previous hearings.

Investigators determined the fire was intentional and that gasoline was used as an accelerant. Shasta, a dog trained to find incendiary materials, pinpointed spots on the ground and a forensic chemist from the Maine State Crime Lab testified that those samples had soaked up gasoline.

Two people from an ambulance crew and a lieutenant with the Vassalboro Fire Department described for jurors the scene in the early morning hours when the fire at the controversial coffee shop was discovered.

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

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

Maurice Pare, a lieutenant with the volunteer fire department, said he was the first firefighter on the scene and had to wait for 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 burned through the wall and was venting out the top.”

The blaze happened hours after coffee shop owner Crabtree appeared before the town’s planning board to request later hours at the shop and permission for his topless waitresses to dance.

Opening statements

Bellavance’s defense attorney, Andrews Campbell, told jurors in his opening statement that Bellavance 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 of the prosecution’s case.

“This, of course, was not a terribly popular establishment in town,” Campbell said. “A lot of people didn’t care to have it in town. That is the context in which this fire occurred.”

Campbell told the jury the fire was intentional and probably set the night before.

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

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

Deputy District Attorney Alan Kelley told jurors that it became evident early on that the fire started outside the building and was no accident.

Kelley said the building owner, Crabtree, had nothing to gain from a fire since he was sleeping inside the building at the time, his daughters and grandchildren were living there and the building was not insured.

“He lost everything,” Kelley said.

Attention then turned to Bellavance, who had been seeing one of the waitresses, and had made it clear he was unhappy with her working there. On March 9, 2009, a sheriff’s deputy responded to a complaint of harassment and issued a trespass warning to Bellavance against being at the coffee shop.

“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,” Kelley said.

MacIntyre is expected to testify at the trial.

Kelley said Bellavance had been with MacIntyre at his wife’s home in West Gardiner when he threatened to burn the shop down to get her to stop working there.

‘Wow, wow’

The trial is scheduled to resume today at 9 a.m., but Justice Michaela Murphy warned jurors that the time could change depending on weather conditions.

Bellavance is charged with two counts of arson — one saying the fire was started intentionally, the other saying the blaze recklessly endangered people. Each count carries a maximum jail sentence of 30 years.

Bellavance, who has been in jail since he was arrested in May 2010 in South Carolina, wore a black suit, white shirt and black and white print tie and brown shoes as he sat at the defense table.

He has continually insisted he is innocent.

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

Before jurors returned from a mid-afternoon break, the judge told Campbell to warn Bellavance against commenting aloud when witnesses spoke.

“I could hear him say, ‘Wow, wow,'” Murphy said. “He is to refrain from reacting to testimony. If I can hear, the jury can hear.”

Murphy said this was an opportunity for Bellavance to show respect for the jury.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

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