A former Winthrop man who recently returned to the area faces two arson charges in connection with a May 31 fire that drove a family from their home.

Ronald Oberst, 47, of Tucson, Ariz., made an initial appearance in Waterville District Court Wednesday on the charges through a video link from the Kennebec County jail. Bail was set at $5,000, and he remains in custody.

Oberst has been in trouble since his return to the area in late May.

He was arrested in Franklin County in early July and charged with indecent conduct for allegedly exposing himself near Prescott Field in Farmington. He told police he was camping there.

Oberst was arrested on the arson charges on Tuesday.

He is accused of setting fire to a residence at 4 Pine Knoll Road, Winthrop, while the occupants, the Lunt family, were asleep.

The charges say that Oberst intentionally and recklessly started the fire, endangering the lives of the occupants as well as emergency personnel responding to the scene.

According to an affidavit filed by Kenneth MacMaster, an investigator with the Office of State Fire Marshal, Oberst said later that he might have done it, but he wasn’t sure, and that it was similar to “one time when he was in Phoenix; he had dreamt that an abandoned trailer had been burned down, and when he (Oberst) woke up, the trailer had in fact burned.” Oberst also told MacMaster that he “hears voices in his head” and was attempting to get help through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs through the Togus hospital.

The Winthrop fire was reported at 2:50 a.m. May 31. Beth Lunt told investigators she smelled smoke and woke her husband Patrick. He went to try to put it out with a garden hose, thinking a detached shed was on fire, and she phoned 911.

However, the May 31 fire was in a wooden structure that covered a bulkhead entrance to the home’s basement. MacMaster said he concluded the fire was arson and that a liquid, likely gasoline, had been used to start it.

The home was damaged so significantly that it has not been reoccupied, and yellow police tape still cordons off part of the property.

MacMaster’s affidavit said the Lunts were buying the home in a rent-to-purchase arrangement from owner James Oberst of Winthrop, Ronald Oberst’s father. James Oberst told MacMaster that he had been out of contact with his son for 20 years until Ronald returned recently from Arizona and contacted him. James Oberst said he understood that his son was a veteran and in need of mental health assistance.

MacMaster worked with the Winthrop police on the investigation since that department received a report of vehicle break-ins around the same time of the fire at the site of Barry Crowell Plumbing & Heating Co., which was not far from the fire scene. Reported stolen were lengths of copper pipe, electrical supplies, and a jacket belonging to an employee, which was found near the fire scene.

Ronald Oberst was seen on a surveillance camera in an Augusta motel parking lot getting out of an SUV about 3:35 a.m. May 31, according to MacMaster’s affidavit. Oberst initially denied leaving his motel room, but then told MacMaster he was joyriding.

The vehicle Ronald Oberst was driving was reported stolen in Augusta by a person who had rented it, MacMaster said, and had scratch marks on a rear tailgate apparently from the copper pipe.

MacMaster indicated he sought an arrest warrant for Ronald Oberst after his DNA was found on the plastic that had contained the copper pipe.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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