Man Charged with Murder in Deadly North Dakota Fire

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- A man accused of torching the apartment building where his former girlfriend lived was charged with murder and three other felonies and ordered held without bail. An elderly woman died in the blaze.

Benjamin Newman, 59, of Bismarck, nodded and gave brief answers as South Central District Judge Robert Wefald explained the charges to him during Newman's first court appearance on Tuesday.

Newman is accused of setting a 12-unit apartment building in northwest Bismarck ablaze on Sunday night. He was arrested late that night. ''I wasn't even in town when any of this took place,'' Newman protested during his Tuesday court appearance.

Newman said he ''vaguely'' understood the murder charge, a Class AA felony which carries a maximum punishment of life in prison without parole.

''It sounds bad,'' Newman said when Wefald described the possible life sentence. ''It is bad,'' the judge replied.

Richard Riha, the Burleigh County state's attorney, said authorities ''were fairly confident'' Newman was in town. ''We believe he was in town when that happened. We have evidence in the case,'' Riha said. ''I'm not going to get into the evidence we have.''

Authorities identified the fire victim on Tuesday as Germaine Lewis, 75, a woman who lived on the second floor of the three-story apartment building. Another woman, Mary Lou Smetak, 58, was taken to hospital. Her condition was not immediately available Tuesday.

Witnesses and authorities said Newman's former girlfriend, Gail Delorme, lived on the building's ground floor. Bismarck Police Lt. Dan Donlin said Delorme was not home Sunday night when the fire broke out.

Witnesses said they had seen a man carrying a gasoline can near the building.

Delorme obtained a court order Jan. 26, directing Newman to stay away from her, Riha said. Newman faces charges of felony stalking and misdemeanor criminal mischief for allegedly harassing Delorme. Riha said Newman was free on $2,500 bail while awaiting trial, scheduled for late June, on the charges.

Newman was charged Tuesday with murder, attempted murder, endangering by fire and violating a domestic violence protection order in connection with the weekend fire. All four charges are felonies.

Bismarck attorney Thomas Glass, who was appointed to defend Newman against the earlier charges, declined comment Tuesday. Wefald said he would look into whether Glass could defend Newman against the new felony charges. Newman appeared in court Tuesday without a lawyer.

Authorities said Newman had gone to a home in the area shortly before he was captured, and left on foot. Police were told he may have been armed with a pistol, but he had no gun when he was arrested, Donlin said Tuesday.

The attempted murder charge alleges Newman tried to kill Delorme by setting the fire. The ''endangering by fire'' charge covers the threat that Newman had allegedly posed to other residents of the building, Riha said.

Related: North Dakota Apartment Fire Kills One