PORTLAND, Maine — The owner of a Portland home that burned in November, killing six people, was indicted Thursday on six counts of Class A felony manslaughter.
Gregory Nisbet, 49, of Portland also was indicted by a Cumberland County grand jury on four misdemeanor counts of violation of the life safety code, according to Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson.
Just after 7 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, firefighters received a report of a fire at the two-unit building at 20-24 Noyes St. The bodies of tenants David Bragdon Jr., 27; Ashley Thomas, 29; and Nicole Finlay, 26; as well as visitors to the building Christopher Conlee, 25, of Portland; and Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham were found in the building.
A sixth victim, 29-year-old Rockland man Steven Summers, leapt from the upper floors of the 94-year-old building to escape. He was hospitalized with severe burns but succumbed to his injuries three days later.
The fire was Maine’s deadliest in nearly four decades.
Attorney Thomas Hallett of Portland, who represents Ashley Summers, the widow of Steven Summers, said the indictments are totally appropriate in this case.
“I hope there are convictions. This is a case where the landlord was exceedingly reckless,” Hallett said.
The attorney said that he and his client believe family members of the other victims are pleased that the district attorney sought the indictments. He said he also was grateful that she did not agree to a plea deal that would not have recognized the magnitude of the offenses.
“She did the right thing,” Hallett said of the district attorney.
Friends of the victims and survivors of the fire testified in December that the home had no smoke alarms, in affidavits filed in a separate wrongful death lawsuit filed against Nisbet by Summers’ family. The families of other victims have filed wrongful death cases against Nisbet as well.
Tom MacMillan, treasurer of the Portland Tenants’ Union, a tenants’ rights group that formed in response to the Noyes Street fire, said in a phone interview Friday that Nisbet and other landlords “need to be held accountable by municipal government and criminal law for putting people’s lives in danger.”
MacMillan’s group has focused on housing safety and affordability and has since the fire lobbied city officials to create a separate housing safety division to perform inspections of multi-unit buildings. The City Council on Monday approved a new $35 per-unit annual fee for landlords to fund a housing safety office to perform those functions.
MacMillan, who lives in the city’s Parkside neighborhood, said his group had hoped for a higher per-unit fee, but said the group is “happy that the council is finally taking tenant safety more seriously” and that the group hopes to have a voice in creating standards for the housing safety office.
The group’s work continues, with emails on a weekly basis from tenants seeking to remedy unsafe housing and seeking to bring attention to the issue of rental affordability in the city, which he said makes the group’s own work more challenging.
“The hard part is that we’re all volunteers and all working 40 or 60 or 70 hours a week at our day jobs because the rent is so high, and tenants are locked out from being able to participate in the life of the city,” MacMillan said. “The Catch-22 of the organization relying on working people is that as we struggle more and more, we have less and less time to contribute to society.”
The Noyes Street fire spurred scrutiny of the city’s fire code inspections process, in part because of multiple complaints lodged over the years by neighbors against the home, alleging dangerous buildups of trash and combustibles on the property and the addition of third-floor living space in what was supposed to be a two-unit building.
The city formed a task force in response to the deadly blaze and discovered that the Portland Fire Department had stopped doing routine fire safety inspections during meetings in December and January, according to the Portland Press Herald. The city’s fire chief, Jerome LaMoria, said in February that the department focused in 2014 on high-risk dwellings like nursing homes and those with previous safety violations.
But LaMoria said that inspection program of buildings with three units or more would not have caught the building at 20-24 Noyes St., which was designated with the city as a two-unit dwelling.
Nisbet’s indictment was released Friday afternoon. Talks about a potential plea deal between Anderson and Nisbet’s attorney had been going on since January but broke down in recent weeks, according to the district attorney’s office.
The maximum sentence for a Class A felony is 30 years in jail.
BDN writers Stephen Betts and Darren Fishell contributed to this report.