AUGUSTA, Maine — The man convicted of setting fire to a topless coffee shop in Vassalboro was sentenced Thursday to the maximum sentence of 30 years.
Raymond Bellavance Jr., 51, of Augusta was convicted Dec. 30, 2011, of class A arson for setting fire to the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop on June 3, 2009. At the time, seven people, including two infants, were asleep in the building — a former motel — that housed the coffee shop. Everyone escaped without injury.
During the trial, acting Kennebec County Deputy District Attorney Alan Kelley said Bellavance started the fire because he did not like that his then-girlfriend, Krista MacIntyre, was a waitress at the coffee shop and had a sexual relationship with the owner, Donald Crabtree.
Justice Michaela Murphy said during the hearing in Kennebec County Superior Court on Thursday that she imposed the maximum sentence without any time suspended because it was “sheer luck” that the arson didn’t lead to a multiple homicide case.
Bellavance “recklessly endangered a number of persons inside the dwelling and a large number of fire personnel,” said Murphy.
Among the reasons Murphy cited for issuing the maximum sentence were that the fire was set after midnight, that 10 gallons of gasoline were used as an accelerant, and the fact that Bellavance should have or did, know people were living in the building at the time.
“This was a serious, dramatic … fire,” Murphy said. “It was set in a time and manner that would maximize damage.”
Murphy also cited Bellavance’s extensive criminal history and his record of violating court orders among her reasons for the lengthy sentence.
Kelley said Bellavance had seven prior convictions for assault, the first in 1982.
Bellavance’s attorney, Andrews Campbell, said the sentence was “very harsh” and he plans to appeal.
“That’s a harsher sentence than in cases of murder sometimes,” said Campbell outside the courtroom. “No person was injured in the fire.”
Kelley said he was pleased with Justice Murphy’s decision.
“In our estimation, 30 years was the appropriate sentence,” said Kelley outside of court. “I think the real question of this case was whether any of it would be suspended [or Bellavance would be given] the full 30 years.
“Certainly we agree with Justice Murphy that this is a case where, probation is a good thing for many people, but Raymond Bellavance has repeatedly failed on probation, ignored court orders, repeatedly shown that he has no respect for the court. The only way you can keep society safe is to give him the full 30-year sentence,” Kelley continued.
Bellavance also was ordered to pay $16,635 in restitution to the Augusta, Vassalboro and Chelsea fire departments. Kelley said Crabtree, who was not present in court, didn’t ask for restitution for his destroyed building.
Crabtree estimated it would cost around $750,000 to replace what was destroyed by the arson that night.
The property owner also told the Bangor Daily News that the wrong man may be going to prison.
“I’m not convinced that Mr. Bellavance is the one who set the fire,” Crabtree said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon.
Crabtree said he planned on reading a letter he wrote during the sentencing hearing, but changed his mind.
“I was supposed to go to court and read that, but I just get so mad,” said Crabtree. “I think it could’ve been investigated a little better. [The trial and investigation] was an awful experience. I don’t wish that upon anybody.”
Crabtree said Bellavance confronted him at the coffee shop on March 9, 2009, about his relationship with MacIntyre. The police were called, he said, but Bellavance left after shaking hands with Crabtree.
“And he never bothered me again,” said Crabtree. “I saw him in town, saw him at bars. Why would he come back [three months] later? Ray’s a fighter. If he had a problem, he would’ve said something else within three months.”
Crabtree had met with the Vassalboro planning board on the night of June 2, 2009, to discuss expanding his hours of operation and whether his existing permit would allow his topless waitresses to dance to music.
“Three hours after that meeting she’s on fire,” said Crabtree. “I believe it was somebody in that town that did it.”
Campbell said that because of the long sentence, Bellavance would never get the opportunity to pay restitution. Members of Bellavance’s family and two officials from the Kennebec County Jail testified on Bellavance’s behalf during Thursday’s sentencing hearing.
“I’ve known Ray for a long time,” said his uncle Tony Bellavance. “He’s a hard worker and I don’t think he should go away for a long time.”
Kennebec County Jail Director of Education Thomas Reuwer said Bellavance can be helped.
He would “primarily study law books” when he was at the jail, said Reuwer. “There’s plenty of potential there worth exploring.”
Bellavance, who has maintained his innocence, did not speak on his own behalf before sentencing.
Campbell said he plans to appeal because the case revolved around mostly indirect evidence and the testimony of Thomas Mulkern, who has a criminal history of his own. The defense attorney said he thought the jury’s decision was rushed.
“The jury had to be home by New Year’s Eve and gave a verdict of guilty and didn’t want to hang around past New Year’s Eve,” said Campbell.