AUGUSTA — A trial began Tuesday for a 63-year-old city man accused of setting fire to his Federal Street home nearly two years ago in an attempt collect insurance money.

Alan L. Crocker faces two arson charges in connection with the blaze on Jan. 28, 2010.

No one was hurt in the incident, but Crocker appeared distressed as he watched the house burn. He was evaluated at the scene and taken to the hospital.

The fire sent a large plume of black smoke over the nearby State House dome on a clear day.

“The fire was not electrical, not caused by the pellet stove, not caused by lightning, not caused by the pellets themselves,” the prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Paul Rucha, said during his opening statement Tuesday. “When everything else is eliminated, it comes down to human element.”

Rucha said Crocker was “the only person home, the only person with motive and opportunity.”

Crocker’s partner was at work at a state office in Augusta when his supervisor notified him about the fire.

Defense attorney Mitchell Flick disagreed with the state’s contention of how the fire started. Flick said all other possible sources were not eliminated and that the experts were “seriously lacking in the job they did in this case, because “spontaneous ignition, spontaneous combustion is a distinct possibility in this case.”

Flick said he would call witnesses who would testify that they saw Crocker that morning “and he seemed to be his chipper, normal self.”

On Monday, before the trial got under way, the attorneys argued in the judge’s chambers about whether the jury can hear about other fires over the years that occurred in places owned by Crocker and for which he collected insurance. Crocker is not in police custody and was not accused of wrongdoing in any of the other fires.

No information about prior fires was included in either attorney’s opening statements on Tuesday.

Rucha said the state’s theory is that Crocker had financial problems and started the fire to get insurance proceeds. Records in U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Maine show Crocker filed for bankruptcy protection on March 4, 2009, and the case remains open. Rucha said Crocker had $160,000 worth of insurance on the building and $120,000 on its contents.

Newspaper records from 1988 say that Crocker shared a $5.8 million Tri-State Megabucks win with his then-roommate when the two men were living in Lewiston. Crocker later filed a lawsuit to continue to receive a share of the proceeds.

On Tuesday, Rucha played a CD recording of Crocker reporting the fire at 11:09 a.m. that day. Crocker tells the dispatcher he sees smoke in the kitchen and flames in the dining room.

When Augusta Fire Battalion Chief Steve Leach arrived a few minutes later, the back rooms, including the dining room, were fully ablaze and one window had blown out, Rucha said.

The fire was investigated by officers of the State Fire Marshal’s Office and a fire investigator working for Liberty Mutual, Crocker’s insurer.

Crocker told investigators he saw smoke as soon as he opened the kitchen door, Rucha said.

The prosecutor summarized Crocker’s description of what he did the morning of the fire as follows:

Crocker left the house just after 8 a.m. to take his two Chihuahuas to a veterinarian in Monmouth, then stopped at a credit union to see his sister. On the way back to Augusta he purchased cigarettes and lottery tickets at J&S Oil in Manchester.

Crocker’s last stop was to buy a leash and collar at a Petco store near his home, Rucha said. When he got home and opened the kitchen door, he saw the smoke.

He went into the dining room, where he saw small flames on a bag of wood pellets, and tried to move the bag, but it broke.

Crocker then grabbed a cage with his two parakeets in it and fled the house, calling 911 from a cellphone and then moving his vehicle, which was close to the home, out of the driveway.

Although Rucha gave a synopsis of Crocker’s account of that morning, he did not say specifically how the state believes Crocker set the fire.

A neighbor was forced to leave his home, where vinyl siding melted from the heat of the blaze.

One count of arson in the indictment against Crocker in Kennebec County Superior Court alleges he set the fire with the intent of collecting insurance money; the other count says the fire itself recklessly endangered people or property. Crocker has pleaded not guilty.

The jury consists of 11 women and two men. The trial is expected to last several days.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

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