Judge to rule in manslaughter case against Portland landlord as soon as next weekFire claimed lives of two Rockland men
Portland — The fate of Gregory Nisbet is now in the hands of Justice Thomas Warren, an 18-year veteran of the bench who will decide whether the Portland landlord is guilty of manslaughter in connection with a fire that killed six people two years ago. Among the victims were Steven Summers, 29, and David Bragdon Jr., 27, both of Rockland.
If convicted, Nisbet will be the first landlord in Maine found guilty of manslaughter for an accidental fire.
Warren would have to find that Nisbet was reckless or criminally negligent, beyond a reasonable doubt, in managing his duplex at 20-24 Noyes St. to find him guilty of manslaughter, which is punishable by as much as 30 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
Nisbet, who did not take the stand during his trial this week at the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland, is charged with one count of manslaughter for each of the fire victims, as well as five misdemeanor code violations.
The fire on Nov. 1, 2014, started when a plastic cigarette butt receptacle caught fire, igniting the front porch, a couch and other items. It quickly spread through the house after Steven Summers, who was visiting a friend, opened the front door to escape. He died of his burns days later.
The fire’s victims included tenants Bragdon, Ashley Thomas, 26, and Nicole Finlay, 26. Summers, 29, of Rockland, Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham and Christopher Conlee, 25, of Portland were visiting the house and also died.
Ashley Summers, Steven Summers’ widow and the mother of their two children, said she believes the state proved its case against Nisbet and hopes the trial will compel other landlords to take better care of their buildings and tenants.
“I hope this trial doesn’t go away and people just go back to what they were doing before in Portland, because look what happened,” the 27-year-old Summers said.
During closing statements, Assistant Attorney General Bud Ellis and defense attorney Matthew Nichols painted starkly different pictures of that fatal night and offered conflicting opinions about whether better fire protection systems would have saved lives.
Nichols argued that the state would need to prove that the tenants, most of whom were intoxicated and sleeping, would have escaped the fire were it not for the actions of the landlord. “Clearly, the state has failed to prove that,” he said.
Ellis highlighted the fact that Nisbet had stopped making mortgage payments on the property in 2011, putting the property in foreclosure the next year.
As he continued to collect rent, Nisbet failed to obtain leases from a revolving cast of tenants and failed to maintain the property, including ensuring that smoke detectors were present and in working condition.
Nisbet’s hands-off attitude was apparent, Ellis said, when Nisbet went ahead with his plans to play two tennis matches in Rockport after learning that at least one person had died in the fire.
“He’d rather play tennis than go back and see what’s happening with the fire that killed five people,” Ellis said. “His attitude towards that building was of total neglect. It amounted to negligence for things that happened over time and built up into this tragic situation.”
One of the central questions of the trial is whether the apartment at 20 Noyes St. was being operated as a single-family home or a rooming and lodging house. The latter would require additional fire protection measures, such as sophisticated fire alarms with strobe lights that could be manually activated, as well as an enclosed staircase with self-closing doors that would help prevent a fire from quickly engulfing an entire building, as it did at Noyes Street.
The attorneys pointed to different codes to make their case.
The state argued that guidance provided by the National Fire Protection Association says that a family consists of no more than three outsiders and rented rooms. Buildings with three to 16 people renting individual rooms should be regulated as a rooming house.
However, the defense argued that the city’s land use code should be consulted to determine the use. The city code defines a family as up to 16 people living in a dwelling unit.
Nichols argued that all of the tenants knew each other and hung out together, including having a Thanksgiving meal, and they designated a head of household to collect rent. That argument was supported by testimony from tenants at the trial, he said.
Nichols noted that Nisbet hired an electrical contractor to install the required hard-wired smoke detectors in the house and that it was the tenants who removed them. He also criticized the state for not preserving any existing smoke detectors as evidence, so they could be examined to determine whether they had batteries or had been activated in the fire.
But Ellis noted that the last lease for the apartment expired in 2011, and that all of the people listed on that lease had moved out. After that occurred, Nisbet simply added names to the expired lease without their knowledge, he said, and would often collect rent from individual tenants rather than a collective sum for the apartment.
Ellis noted the presence of locks on the exterior doors of three of the six bedrooms, which is consistent with a rooming house.
“This was not anything close to resembling a family residence,” he said.
Even if Warren rules that the apartment was being used by a single family, Ellis said, Nisbet should still be found guilty of not having a secondary means of escape for two bedrooms on the third floor, where three people died. A survivor testified to hearing two women screaming from those rooms.
Those bedrooms, as well as a bathroom, were built without the necessary permits from the city.
Former tenants testified that the third-floor windows only opened about 6-8 inches, which would not allow tenants to escape or a firefighter to enter in an attempted rescue. Also, those windows are more than 20 feet off the ground, requiring some sort of outside landing where someone could await rescue, Ellis said.
“There were three people up there who would have had an opportunity to get out,” he said. “They had enough time. Just like the people on the second floor had enough time to get out.”
SPEED OF THE FIRE
Nichols also argued that the fire was so intense and moved so quickly through the house that no additional amount of notification would have allowed the tenants to survive.
That conclusion was based on testimony from an expert hired by the defense, who said the heat from the fire would have disabled smoke detectors within 10 seconds of the front door's being opened, since it can take between 30 seconds and 2 minutes for a smoke detector to become activated.
“A smoke detector is a device designed to detect smoke, not heat and not deadly gases,” he said. “In a slow-moving fire, they work. In a fast-moving fire, they don’t.”
Nichols also argued that the heat generated from the fire would have presented an “untenable situation” and quickly incapacitated the tenants before they could escape, especially if those tenants were sleeping and intoxicated.
Ellis, meanwhile, pointed to testimony from survivors who described their efforts to escape.
Nathan Long said he awoke to his alarm at 7:15 a.m. and called 911 immediately after he escaped at 7:17 a.m. Paul Garrido, who was visiting Noyes Street with a friend, testified that it took him 60 to 90 seconds to escape with Long and Kyle Bozman through a second-story window.
HOPE FOR CLOSURE
Ashley Summers said the trial left her with mixed emotions. She was most troubled by Nisbet’s apparent disregard for his tenants, which was evidenced by his decision to play tennis after learning about the fatal fire.
“That hit through the heart,” she said.
Her daughters are now 5 and 7 years old. They did not attend the trial and still do not know exactly how their father died.
Summers hopes her husband and the other victims will be remembered for more than just the Noyes Street fire.
“I don’t think Steve’s legacy is that guy in the fire,” she said. “He had so much to offer. He was an amazing dad. He was in the military. He was a talented musician. As were other people with their own professions.”
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Daniel Dunkle is editor of The Courier-Gazette and news director for Courier Publications. He lives in Rockland with his wife, Christine, who also works for Courier Publications, and two children.
Dunkle has previously served as editor of The Republican Journal in Belfast. He has worked as a reporter and photographer in the Midcoast since 1998.
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