April 5, 2013

Police say man had 'no apparent reason' for starting apartment fire

Stephen Cormier, 57, charged with arson in relation to fire that destroyed Northern Avenue apartment last month

By Craig Crosby ccrosby@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- A fire that destroyed a Northern Avenue apartment building last month was set by a tenant who ignited a pile of papers on an end table for no apparent reason, investigators said Thursday.

click image to enlarge

KNOCKING DOWN: Firefighters douse the rear of an apartment building on Northern Avenue in Augusta Thursday, March 21, 2013 that was consumed by fire. One resident of the building was injured, according to firefighters.

Staff photo by Andy Molloy

click image to enlarge

Stephen Cormier

The tenant, 57-year-old Stephen Cormier, was arrested Thursday on a warrant charging him with arson. Cormier, who had been living at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter in Waterville since the March 21 fire, turned himself in at that city's police station.

Cormier was being held at the Kennebec County jail in lieu of $50,060 cash bail. He is expected to make his initial court appearance today.

Cormier's arrest is the culmination of a joint investigation between the State Fire Marshal's Office and Augusta Police, said Sgt. Ken Grimes of the Fire Marshal's Office.

The two-story, four-unit apartment building at 146 Northern Ave. was badly damaged by the fire. The building, owned by Jim Pepin Properties, was demolished late last month.

Pepin did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.

Cormier had lived in the first-floor, front apartment, where investigators believe the fire originated, for the past two years, Grimes said.

Cormier was one of two people at home when the fire broke out shortly before 3 p.m. He was taken to MaineGeneral Medical Center in Augusta for treatment of smoke inhalation and was later released.

An affidavit filed by Kenneth MacMaster of the Fire Marshal's Office said Cormier admitted to setting fire to a piece of paper on an end table. The flames spread to other pieces of paper on the table before falling on the floor and spreading to the couch, MacMaster said.

When the couch caught on fire, Cormier got up and went to the kitchen for a glass of water to put out the fire, MacMaster said. The fire continued to grow despite being doused with several glasses of water. The flames eventually reached the ceiling.

Edward Cleary, 43, the only other person at home at the time of the fire, told investigators the flames kept him from leaving his first-floor rear apartment through the porch so he went out a rear door. Cleary said Cormier was already outside, MacMaster said.

"Cormier does not recall why he lit the paper on fire," MacMaster wrote. "Cormier did not recall being angry or upset. Cormier denied feeling depressed or angry prior to the fire. Cormier said he does not interact with his neighbors, but has no problems with his neighbors either."

Cormier told investigators he lives alone, but Ernst Riceman, 53, said that he also had been living in the apartment.

"Riceman said Cormier would have lied about him living there because Cormier's rent is subsidized and (Cormier) is not supposed to have other people living in the apartment," MacMaster wrote.

Cormier told investigators he has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has regularly taken his medication four times per day.

But Riceman said Cormier had not been taking his medication and had been acting strangely.

"Riceman said Cormier tries to get into Riceman's bedroom at night," MacMaster wrote. "Riceman said he has put a knife in the door jam because Cormier is so persistent."

Riceman told investigators he left the apartment about 8 a.m. the day of the fire.

"Riceman said he noticed (that) morning that the end table by the couch had burnt paper on it," MacMaster said. "Riceman said the burnt paper had phone numbers on it. Riceman said this is the kind of behavior Cormier has been exhibiting."

Still, when Riceman returned to the apartment after the fire, he did not immediately suspect Cormier had set it.

"Riceman (said) that the people upstairs had a grow light, and Riceman believed the fire may have started there," MacMaster said.

 

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