AUGUSTA, Maine — Raymond J. Bellavance Jr. was found guilty of two counts of arson Friday in connection with a fire that destroyed a topless coffee shop in Vassalboro more than two years ago.
The jury returned its verdict just before 6 p.m. in Kennebec County Superior Court after deliberating for about 4½ hours.
Of the two counts of arson, one alleged that he deliberately set the blaze on June 3, 2009, at the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop to cause damage. The other alleged he recklessly endangered a person or property located on Route 3.
Bellavance did not react to the verdict. Early in the trial Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy warned him to stop reacting to testimony and show more respect for jurors.
After the jury forewoman announced the verdict, Murphy asked each juror individually if he or she found Bellavance guilty or not guilty on each count. One by one, each juror replied, “Guilty,” twice.
No explanation was given as to why the jury forewoman informed a court officer that jurors had reached a verdict about 5 p.m., then a few minutes later told him they had not reached a decision.
Donald Crabtree, the owner of the coffee shop who now lives in Greenbush, was not in court Friday. He testified early in the 10-day trial, which stretched over three weeks, that he was not insured and lost everything in the blaze.
Waitress Krista MacIntyre, who testified Tuesday for the defense, sat at the back of the courtroom for a portion of the closing arguments but left before they were completed and did not return.
After the jury was dismissed, Murphy told attorneys they should submit sentencing memorandums to her by Feb. 3. After that, the judge said she would set a sentencing date.
Bellavance faces up to 30 years in prison. His sentence most likely will be long because of his extensive criminal record, most of which was not revealed to the jury, and because there were two infants living in the building — a former motel — that housed the coffee shop. The 19 months he has been at the Kennebec County Jail unable to make bail and awaiting trial would be applied to his sentence.
Outside the courtroom, Alan Kelley, deputy district attorney for Kennebec County, praised investigators from the State Fire Marshal’s Office and his colleague James Mitchell.
Kelley declined to speculate on what the jury might have considered “key evidence,” but said the testimony of Thomas Mulkern was important.
Mulkern, 26, of Augusta came forward last week and changed his story. Originally, he told investigators that he was in Portland when the fire was set. He said that after going through a drug rehabilitation program, he wanted to come forward and deal with his past as part of his recovery.
He told the jury Dec. 23 that he was with Bellavance when the defendant set the blaze. Mulkern received immunity from prosecution in exchange for his testimony.
“Obviously, we thought we had a strong case before Mr. Mulkern came forward,” Kelley said after the verdict was announced. “We felt that Mr. Mulkern and [his girlfriend] Emma Wood were accomplices who were used by Mr. Bellavance. We wanted to give the jury the opportunity to hear his testimony and strengthen our case.”
Defense attorney Andrews Campbell of Bowdoinham said after the verdict that it was too soon to say whether the verdict would be appealed.
“We will be looking at the rulings in due course,” he said.
On Friday morning two very different portraits of Bellavance were presented to jurors as attorneys made their closing arguments in his trial.
Campbell said sneaking around at night to start a fire was not Bellavance’s style.
“He’s confrontational,” he told the jury. “He might punch you out, but he wouldn’t come to your house and burn it down.”
He said that kind of act was totally inconsistent with the loving father and grandfather Bellavance is.
Campbell strongly criticized the investigation by the State Fire Marshal’s Office. He said the only suspect ever considered by investigators was Bellavance.
“This case has been a flat tire from the beginning,” he said. “They’ve tried to make the evidence fit their theory of the crime [and] not evaluated the evidence objectively.”
Kelley said the evidence overwhelmingly showed that Bellavance started the fire because he did not like the fact that his then-girlfriend, MacIntyre, was a waitress at the coffee shop and had a sexual relationship with the owner, Donald Crabtree.
“Ray Bellavance is a volatile man, quick to anger and, when he’s angry, quick to act,” Kelley told the jury.
He said witnesses had testified that they heard him threaten to set the fire and then confess to setting it before fleeing the state when he learned a warrant had been issued for his arrest. He was arrested in May 2010 in South Carolina.
“There is no way they would have known the details about the fire that they testified to unless Ray Bellavance told them those things,” Kelley said.
As for the purported eyewitness, Campbell said that Mulkern used news reports of the trial and “the rumor mill” to create a story about seeing Bellavance set the fire in exchange for immunity.
“He was offered the deal of the century,” the defense attorney said.
“[Mulkern] said he was worried about being prosecuted for this,” he said. “What that means is, he’s telling the truth and provided detail[s] others had no way of knowing and details other witnesses support.”