Franklin County man gets 2 years for insurance theft after torching house

Posted June 07, 2012, at 7:13 a.m.
Last modified June 07, 2012, at 12:15 p.m.

FARMINGTON, Maine — A Franklin County Superior Court justice on Wednesday sentenced a man previously convicted of having sawed-off shotguns to two years in prison for torching his house in June 2010.

Joseph T. Smith, 66, of Township 6 North of Weld, pleaded no contest to a charge of theft by insurance deception. He will serve that sentence while he is serving a 41-month federal prison sentence for possessing three sawed-off shotguns.

Smith was sentenced in May on the federal charge, which includes three years of supervised release when he gets out of prison. That charge came after police and drug agents searched Smith’s hunting camp in the township in September 2010 during a drug investigation. Police seized the modified shotguns at that time.

Smith was arrested in May 2011 on charges of arson and theft by insurance deception. Police accused him of destroying a house in June 2010 and of collecting more than $10,000 from insurance, according to court documents.

He also was arrested in September 2010 on charges of cultivating marijuana. Police searched his property and that of his son, Tad Smith, on Number 6 Road in Phillips and discovered more than 1,000 marijuana plants, 575 of which police said were on the elder Smith’s property.

Police stored the plants in an evidence building in Farmington, but they were stolen overnight by others who were charged in the case when they were caught.

In court Wednesday, the arson and cultivating charges were dismissed, but Smith pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of illegal possession of marijuana. He admitted to a charge of criminal forfeiture.

If the theft by insurance charge went to trial, Assistant District Attorney James Andrews said, the court would have heard testimony from state fire investigator Edward Hastings IV that in early June 2010 he investigated a fire that burned a large residential property owned by Joseph Smith. Hastings would have testified that valuable items had been moved away from the home and items that should have been left in the home after the fire such as those made of metal were not there, Andrews said.

Testimony also would have shown the property was listed for sale for a while and over time the price was reduced to $150,000, he said. At the time of the fire, the dwelling was insured at $150,000 and the contents at $112,000, he said.

Testimony would also be given that during a search warrant at the home of Smith and his companion, Sheila Abbott, 57, a co-defendant in the case, some items reported to be lost in the fire turned up on the property, Andrews said. Testimony would be given that a search of a seasonal residence owned by Abbott and frequented by Smith in Florida also turned up items supposedly destroyed in the fire, the prosecutor said.

Smith’s attorney, Woody Hanstein, said his client disagreed with about every aspect of the state’s case but knew that if the circumstantial evidence was presented to a jury, it might find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Andrews said the agreement was for two years on the theft charge to run concurrently with the federal sentence. It also called for a $400 fine on the illegal possession of marijuana charge.

Justice Michaela Murphy approved the terms.

Hanstein said Smith gave up all rights to his firearms in the forfeiture charge but those that belong to his son are to be returned to him, once they are sorted out by the state.

Abbott, of Phillips, pleaded guilty to a new charge of criminal mischief as part of a plea agreement. Charges against her of arson and theft by insurance deception were dismissed.

Justice Murphy ordered Abbott to pay a $500 fine.

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