The house at 15 Prospect St. in Caribou burns on Sept. 3. An excavator tears down parts of the structure to let fire crews access other burning areas. Credit: Courtesy of Caribou Fire and Ambulance

“Smoking material” used on a mattress brought down a controversial house in Caribou, investigators said Tuesday.

The two-story residence at 15 Prospect St. was destroyed in a fire early Sunday morning.

Caribou, which has been on a campaign to clean up blighted properties and suspected drug houses, had targeted the 15 Prospect St. house as a dangerous building. Investigators did not say what “smoking material” meant specifically.

Residents have complained to the city that there was drug use occurring there. But the lack of electricity and numerous safety violations that went unaddressed prompted the city to seek court action against the owner, John Barretto, who claimed he was only helping people who had nowhere else to live.

The home’s destruction leaves the court action in limbo for now, according to Caribou City Manager Penny Thompson.

“The city filed suit to have the building declared a dangerous building and for an order of demolition,” Thompson said Tuesday. “A hearing would have been held at a later date had the building not burned down.”

The Caribou City Council will consult with city attorney Rick Solman to decide whether to withdraw the legal action, she said. The next council meeting is Sept. 25.

Now that the home is leveled, Barretto told police he will move into the garage, Caribou Police Chief Michael Gahagan said.

“We are checking on what his plans are,” Gahagan said. “He says he is going to live in his garage, which is not acceptable. There’s no running water, electricity or bathrooms.”

Because it lacks necessities for residency, the entire inspection and code enforcement process could start all over again, the chief said.

Police will also contact the city attorney to discuss the implications of Barretto trying to reside in the garage, which is the only piece of the house still standing, he said.

The home was not insured, Gahagan said.  

Crews from Caribou Fire and Ambulance found the back of the second story heavily burning at around 5:30 a.m. Sept. 3, according to firefighter and paramedic Scott Michaud.

Barretto told firefighters everyone was out of the building, Michaud said Sunday.  

Rubble marks the site of the former house at 15 Prospect St. in Caribou, which was destroyed in a Sept. 3 fire. Credit: Paula Brewer / Aroostook Republican Credit: Paula Brewer / Aroostook Republican

Flames spread quickly to other parts of the building, but firefighters could not enter the home because it had been declared structurally unsafe in a previous city inspection, according to a Monday social media statement by Caribou Fire and Ambulance.

Crews from Caribou and four other communities attacked the fire from outside, and an excavator tore apart some of the structure so firefighters could extinguish flames trapped throughout the building, the department said.

No fatalities were reported. One person with minor injuries was treated at Cary Medical Center and later released, the statement said.

The person had burns on an arm, according to Michaud.

Caribou Fire and Ambulance worked with the state fire marshal’s office to determine the fire’s cause.

The property had been the source of resident complaints for nearly a decade. Barretto and the city clashed over reports of alleged drug activity and safety violations there.

Following the overdose death of 22-year-old Hanah White at another property residents believed to be associated with drug use, 15 Prospect St. — also called “The Brown House” — drew similar allegations and pleas for action from residents.

Ken Murchison, former code enforcement officer, told the Caribou City Council in October Barretto had not responded to several violation notices. During a November public hearing, residents reported multiple police calls to the house and seeing drug needles and garbage there.

The city council in January declared the property dangerous and a nuisance, and Barretto said he would comply with inspections.

Chairs and part of the roof lay among the rubble at 15 Prospect St. in Caribou. An early Sunday fire destroyed the building. Credit: Paula Brewer / Aroostook Republican Credit: Paula Brewer / Aroostook Republican

The home had not had electricity for a long time, and inspections detailed electrical wires hanging from walls, some rooms with no windows for emergency exit and improperly installed wood stoves residents used for heating and cooking.

Barretto did not respond by the city’s deadline to demands that he fix the violations, according to Murchison. The city sued Barretto in April for failing to address the safety issues, leaving a judge to decide if the home was dangerous enough to be torn down.

Barretto had claimed he took in people with homelessness and substance abuse issues who had nowhere else to go, since there are few affordable housing options in the area.

Aroostook County Red Cross representatives were contacted, said Dan Dowling, regional communications manager for the American Red Cross of Northern New England. It is not known what services were offered to the three displaced people, he said.

Barretto has no phone and could not be reached for comment.

BDN writer Melissa Lizotte contributed to this story.