AUGUSTA, Maine — Thomas Mulkern stuck to his story like glue for more than two years: The 26-year-old Augusta man was in Portland when the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop burned down.
On Friday, he told a Kennebec County jury where he really was in the early morning hours of June 3, 2009. Mulkern was with Raymond Bellavance and saw him slosh gasoline on the back of the building in Vassalboro and on the lawn near it. Then he used his lighter to set the place ablaze.
Mulkern originally was listed as a witness for the defense. He testified on the sixth day of Bellavance’s trial.
He changed his story Tuesday, a day before graduating from a drug rehabilitation program and being released from the Kennebec County Jail.
In exchange for his testimony against Bellavance, Mulkern received immunity from prosecution for his part in the fire and other crimes that might come to light as a result of his testimony.
Bellavance, 50, of Winthrop is charged with two counts of arson in connection with the fire. One count alleges that he deliberately set the blaze to cause damage. The other alleges he recklessly endangered a person or property.
The fire was discovered shortly before 1 a.m. by a team of paramedics returning to Belfast after they transported a patient to a Portland hospital.
The trial began Wednesday, Dec. 14. It is expected to conclude late next week.
Under cross-examination, Mulkern denied coming forward because he was worried he would be charged with arson. He told jurors his testimony was part of his rehabilitation process.
“When you go through rehab, you have to deal with the past to move forward,” Mulkern said.
Despite suggestions from defense attorney Andrews Campbell that Mulkern’s knowledge of the fire and events on June 2 and 3, 2009, came from press reports of the trial and not firsthand knowledge, Mulkern stuck by his testimony Friday.
He and his then-girlfriend, Emma Wood, met Bellavance between 8 and 9 p.m. June 2 in the parking lot of a bar in downtown Augusta, Mulkern said.
Wood was driving her car because neither man had a driver’s license.
From the bar, they headed toward the home of a man they planned to buy drugs from, Mulkern testified. Shortly before arriving there, they pulled into the parking lot of a business on Western Avenue when Bellavance saw Krista MacIntyre’s car parked in the lot of a nearby church.
MacIntyre has been described by Kennebec County Deputy District Attorney Alan Kelley, who is prosecuting the case, as Bellavance’s girlfriend, who worked as a waitress at the topless coffee shop. Bellavance allegedly was jealous because she was having a sexual relationship with the owner, Donald Crabtree.
Crabtree last week admitted to having sex with MacIntyre but denied having a physical relationship with her.
When Bellavance returned to Wood’s car, he was upset because MacIntyre was with another man he did not recognize, Mulkern testified.
After returning to the apartment he shared with Wood and using cocaine, Mulkern, Wood and Bellavance went to the trailer on Route 3 where Bellavance’s daughter lived.
That is where the plan to burn down the coffee shop came together, Mulkern told the jury.
“He said he wanted to burn down the topless coffee shop and he needed a ride to do it,” he said. “I had never been there.”
Bellavance, who apparently kept clothes at his daughter’s home, gave Mulkern a pair of black pants, a red, long-sleeved shirt and a black hooded sweatshirt to wear instead of his light-colored summer clothing, he testified.
Christopher Partridge, an acquaintance of Bellevance’s who was at the trailer, helped put two large gas cans in the trunk of Wood’s car, Mulkern testified. Wood drove them down a dirt road adjacent to the coffee shop.
The men got out of the car between 12:30 and 12:45 a.m. June 3, 2009, and retrieved the gas cans.
“Ray told Emma to go back to [the trailer] and wait for a phone call, then come back and pick us up,” he said.
Mulkern said Bellavance took the gas cans across to the back of the coffee shop, located in a former motel. The defendant emptied one can of gas onto the side of the building, then emptied the other can in the same place. Then Bellavance used his lighter to ignite the gasoline, Mulken said.
“I heard a whoosh, then the fire started going toward the building,” he testified.
When Bellavance returned to where Mulkern was waiting in the trees alongside the road, he realized he had left his cellphone in Wood’s car.
Mulkern said that he did not have a cellphone, either.
“He got frustrated, he got angry, he got upset.” Mulkern said of Bellavance’s reaction. “He’s not a very pleasant person when he gets like that. It’s everybody’s fault but his own.”
Right after he learned they didn’t have a way to contact a ride, Mulkern said he learned there were people inside the building.
Crabtree, the coffee shop owner, 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. All escaped the fire uninjured.
“When I learned that, I was overwhelmed,” Mulkern testified. “I wanted to get away from him. My life was flashing before my eyes.”
Bellavance and Mulkern then got into a physical altercation, and Mulkern said he lost the sweatshirt. At some point the two headed into the woods with Bellavance holding a knife against Mulkern’s back, Mulkern told the jury. Bellavance said he was familiar with the woods but Mulkern was not.
The two heard dogs barking, then sirens, and assumed they were firetrucks responding to the blaze, Mulkern said. They were so afraid that dogs were tracking them the two men hid waist-deep in swamp water at one point.
Eventually they made their way to the home of Bellavance’s aunt, he said.
Bellavance awakened her but she wouldn’t let them in. Instead, she tossed a phone and a T-shirt out the window.
Wood and Partridge picked them up a short time later, Mulkern testified.
Bellavance also warned Mulkern to “keep his mouth shut” or he could be charged with arson, the witness said.
“He said he would cut my throat,” Mulkern said.
Crabtree, who now lives in Greenbush, closed the business for good in May 2011. After the fire, he continued to operate in a trailer after he was told by Vassalboro officials his new signs violated local ordinances, The Associated Press reported.
Crabree testified last week that he did not have insurance and “lost everything in the blaze.”