Who torched topless coffee shop? Jurors to decide as trial begins

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Posted Dec. 14, 2011, at 7:17 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Just who is Raymond J. Bellavance Jr., the Winthrop man charged with torching the controversial topless coffee shop in Vassalboro more than two years ago?

Was he the discarded, jealous boyfriend described by the prosecution? Or the kind of guy who really likes kids and people? That’s how his own attorney described him.

The jury of nine women and seven men, including four alternates, will have to decide next week which lawyer best captured the man charged with two counts of arson. One count alleges that he deliberately set the blaze to cause damage. The other alleges he recklessly endangered a person or property.

Alan Kelley, deputy district attorney for Kennebec County, told jurors Wednesday that Bellavance “had a lot of anger, a lot of jealousy” toward Donald Crabtree, the owner of the shop, who now lives in Greenbush. Kelley said in his opening statement as Bellavance’s trial got under way that the defendant didn’t like the fact that his ex-girlfriend, Krista MacIntyre, was working at the shop and having sex with Crabtree.

“This case is about the loss of control,” Kelley told jurors, “and a need to re-establish control over Krista.”

The prosecutor also said that Bellavance had threatened to burn down the coffee shop in front of his estranged wife and fled the state when he learned he was about to be arrested.

Defense attorney Andrews Campbell of Bowdoinham said in his opening statement that his client was not the kind of man who would set a fire at night, endangering the lives of seven people, including two infants.

Crabtree, his twin daughters, their boyfriends and their 4-month-old sons were living in a section of the coffee shop that had once been a motel but had been renovated as living quarters.

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

Testimony on Wednesday centered on the discovery of the fire and the first stages of the 11-month-long investigation that led to charges being filed against Bellavance.

Robert Richards and Shirley Rogers, both volunteer emergency medical technicians for Belfast, testified that they were on their way home shortly before 1 a.m. June 3, 2009, when Richards noticed an odd glow behind a building on Route 3 as they drove by the coffee shop. The two had taken a patient from Belfast to Portland earlier.

Richards, who was driving, turned the ambulance around and headed back toward Augusta to check out the glow. He and Rogers both said they saw flames shooting up the back of the building and in the grass.

Richards used the ambulance radio to report the blaze to a Waldo County dispatcher, who alerted local agencies.

Richards said he roused owner Donald Crabtree and the others in the building. All were uninjured and unaware of the fire, according to previously published reports.

Donald Crabtree’s daughter Crystal Crabtree, 21, and her fiance, Joseph Murphy, age unknown, both of Greenbush, contradicted a portion of the EMTs’ testimony. Both said they recalled Richards and Rogers telling them the night of the fire that Richards had spotted the blaze on the way to — not on the way back from — Portland.

Murphy testified that he had used a gasoline-powered lawnmower on June 2, 2009, to mow the lawn around the coffee house and the former motel units. He said he put the can back in the garage behind the building.

When asked if he could identify a similar plastic, five-gallon gas can found at the scene, Murphy said it was not the one he had used to put gas in the lawn mower.

Daniel Young, an investigator with the State Fire Marshal’s Office, said that he arrived at the scene about 8:20 a.m., more than seven hours after the fire was reported. With him was Shasta, a dog trained to sniff out ignitable liquids.

Young told the jury that Shasta identified six places on the ground, some next to the siding, at the back of the former motel near the garage. The investigator took soil samples from those places and sent them to Maine State Police Crime Laboratory in Warren to be tested.

Michelle Fleury, a forensic chemist from the lab, testified Wednesday afternoon that all six samples tested positive for gasoline.

Bellavance, who at one point considered representing himself, according to previous reports, consulted often Wednesday with his attorney. His comments of “Wow, wow,” after Crystal Crabtree and Murphy testified, earned him a rebuke from Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy via Campbell.

The judge and the witness are not related.

“I heard the defendant say, ‘Wow, wow,’ a few times,” the judge told the defense attorney after a midafternoon break. “If I can hear him, the jury can hear him.

“Now is the time for him to show some respect to the jury that is going to be deciding this case,” she concluded. “Please speak with him about that, Mr. Campbell.”

Bellavance, clean-shaven and dressed in suit, white shirt and tie, remained quiet and wrote notes to his lawyer for the remainder of the afternoon.

The trial is expected to resume Thursday with testimony from a DNA expert and Donald Crabtree, who was not insured. MacIntyre and others who worked at the topless coffee shop are not expected to testify until next week, Kelley said after the trial recessed for the day.

Bellavance was arrested in May 2010 in South Carolina. He has been held at the Kennebec County Jail since then unable to post bail. Murphy set bail at $1 million surety or $200,000

The trial is expected to last until late next week.

If convicted, Bellavance faces up to 30 years in prison on each charge.

CORRECTION:

A previous version of this story said Brian MacMasters was state fire marshal. The story should have referred to Kenneth MacMasters.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/12/14/news/mid-maine/arson-trial-in-blaze-that-destroyed-topless-coffee-shop-to-begin/ printed on August 22, 2014