Police: Tenant set fire outside boarding house; Salem man faces arson, attempt to commit murder charges

By Jill Harmacinski

Staff writer

SALEM -- An oil burner technician who recently moved into a Federal Street boarding house was charged with arson and attempting to commit murder after he allegedly set a potentially deadly fire outside his new home Saturday night.

Dennis Cordette, 49, moved into the 12-room boarding house at 62 Federal St. a week ago. Saturday night Cordette poured an accelerant, most likely gasoline, outside the front doors of the rooming house sparking a blaze that endangered the lives of 14 residents, according to police and fire investigators.

The fire broke out at 7:30 p.m. Tenants inside were forced to evacuate through the back door. Investigators believe Cordette also doused that area with gasoline -- although a fire never erupted there.

The blaze was knocked down quickly by Salem firefighters. A state police accelerant sniffing dog would later make numerous "hits" on "combustible pours" outside the front and back doors of the rooming house, Salem Fire Investigator Paul Gallant said.

Tenants and neighbors told investigators Cordette was seen outside the rooming house "just prior to the fire," Gallant said. They also said they smelled gas fumes outside the house Saturday night.

It was unclear last night why Cordette set the fire. Investigators don't believe he had problems with any of his fellow rooming house tenants. The building's landlord, Stephen Morris, was "surprised" by Cordette's arrest, noting he just moved in and had paid his rent, investigators said.

According to Cordette's booking slip, he is employed at Hawthorne Oil in Salem. He was charged with burning a building and 14 counts of attempting to commit a crime, murder. He was held without bail over the weekend and will be arraigned on the charges this morning in Salem District Court.

No one was injured in Saturday night's fire, although Gallant noted the blaze could have been disastrous, particularly if the fire had been set when residents were sleeping. According to assessors' records, the building was built around 1850 with balloon-construction, a building style where there are no fire stops in the walls, which allows fire to quickly escalate.

The rooming house was equipped with sprinklers and fire alarms, Gallant said. The building's owner is listed as Federal North Realty Trust. It is assessed at $403,600. Morris, the rooming house landlord, could not be reached for comment last night.

Investigators praised Federal Street neighbors for dialing 911 when they spotted the fire Saturday night.

"If it weren't for alert neighbors ... this could have had a very different ending," according to a Fire Department report on the incident.

The case was investigated by Gallant, Salem Police Detective Eric Connolly and State Trooper Don Bossi and his accelerant sniffing black Labrador, Tubbs.

Staff reporter Jill Harmacinski can be reached at (978) 338-2652 or by e-mail at jharmacinski@ecnnews.com.