PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday denied the appeal of an Augusta man convicted of burning down a topless coffee shop in Vassalboro in 2009.
Raymond Bellavance Jr., 51, of Augusta is serving a 30-year sentence after being convicted in December 2011 of the Class A arson charge. He was found guilty by a jury in Kennebec County Superior Court in Augusta of setting fire to the Grand View Topless Coffee Shop on June 3, 2009, while seven people, including two infants, were asleep in another part of the building that was formerly a motel. No one was injured.
Bellavance was sentenced to the maximum 30-year sentence on May 2012 by Superior Court Justice Michaela Murphy.
In February, Bellavance’s attorney, Andrews B. Campbell of Bowdoinham, filed an appeal with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court arguing that Bellavance deserved a new trial because it was impossible to seat an impartial jury due to pretrial publicity; the judge placed undue pressure on defense witnesses to invoke their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination; immunity was granted improperly to a defendant; and the defense was not given enough time to adequately prepare when a witness decided to testify against rather than for Bellavance.
Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said Bellavance received a fair trial and that Murphy properly conducted the proceedings.
The high court sided with the district attorney’s office.
Campbell also argued that he and his client did not have enough time to prepare for the testimony of Thomas Mulkern, who was given immunity by the prosecution for his testimony against Bellavance.
The supreme court affirmed that Bellavance was given proper time to prepare, as Justice Murphy allowed him 48 hours.
“Bellavance has not established that he suffered sufficient prejudice to show that the court abused its discretion by not permitting him additional time to prepare for Mulkern’s testimony,” the court wrote in its decision released on Thursday. “In short, Bellavance fails to identify any actual prejudice caused by not having additional time to prepare for Mulkern’s testimony.
“Under the circumstances, Bellavance’s Sixth Amendment rights were not violated,” the court continued. “The court did not act unreasonably or arbitrarily in overruling Bellavance’s objection to Mulkern’s testimony and not permitting Bellavance additional time to prepare for Mulkern’s testimony. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in permitting Mulkern to testify on Dec. 23.
“We have carefully considered Bellavance’s remaining arguments and find them to be unpersuasive, and do not address them separately,” the supreme court concluded in its ruling.
During the trial, then-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.
Bellavance has maintained his innocence throughout, and even Crabtree said he’s “not convinced that Mr. Bellavance is the one who set the fire.”
Crabtree said he 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,” Crabtree said after the sentencing last year. “I believe it was somebody in that town that did it.”
Justice Murphy said during sentencing last May 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.
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 that Bellavance should have or did know that 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.”
Neither Maloney nor Campbell were available for comment on Thursday.