Homeless Man Gets Prison for Multiple Arsons in Maine

Aug. 07--AUBURN -- A judge who sentenced a homeless Lewiston man on Wednesday to serve five years in prison for helping set one of a string of destructive fires in downtown Lewiston last year acknowledged the man's "very serious history of mental health problems."

Brian Morin, 31, has what a prosecutor at Morin's sentencing hearing described as a "very low IQ." Morin's attorney said he has mental issues including a "severe brain injury" and bipolar, psychotic and post-traumatic stress disorders.

But Justice MaryGay Kennedy said in sentencing Morin that prison is the "only option" and ordered that he serve 12 years of probation afterward under the highest supervision the state's probation officers and staff can impose.

Morin had slowly read a two-sided letter that he had handwritten for the sentencing hearing in Androscoggin County Superior Court asking the judge to send him to a state psychiatric hospital instead of prison to "get the help I need and get the medication I need to get my mind back on track."

But Kennedy said that isn't one of the sentencing "tools" she had available. Maine has no mental health treatment facility for criminals found competent enough to be held responsible for their actions.

"We don't have that type of placement for you or people like you, and it's very sad," Kennedy said. "This is not a great result for anyone, but the public safety is more important. So he will spend a period in jail and be on probation for a very long time."

Questions of mental health and competency have weighed heavily on authorities as they struggled to hold people accountable for the series of fires in Lewiston's densely populated downtown between April 29 and May 6, 2013.

In all, the three multi-building blazes destroyed nine buildings, scorched others and left nearly 200 people homeless. The back-to-back timing of the three arsons had city residents fearing when the next fire would come.

Morin, who pleaded guilty to three felony arson counts on June 6, is the first person to receive prison time in connection with the fires. He and a co-defendant -- Bryan Wood, 24, of Lewiston -- were charged with setting a fire on May 6, 2013, that destroyed the vacant apartment buildings at 114 and 118 Bartlett St. and damaged 91 Horton St. because they didn't like that the buildings were vacant and neglected.

Authorities had also charged two 12-year-old boys last spring, accusing them of acting separately to set fires on April 29 and May 3.

But since then, the cases against two of the four defendants have unraveled, and it remains uncertain whether the Androscoggin County District Attorney's Office will be able to prosecute the remaining case.

The case against Wood was the first to be dismissed. In August, a judge found him not competent to stand trial, based in part on a state psychologist's examination that showed Wood has "mild retardation."

The state was forced to dismiss its case against Brody Covey, who was 12 when he was accused of setting the first fire, because of a mistake by Lewiston police.

Covey told police in an interview that he started a fire on April 29, 2013, behind the condemned building at 105-111 Blake St., where he and his parents faced eviction. That fire created such fierce flames that it spread and destroyed adjacent buildings at 172 Bates St. and 82 Pine St.

A judge ruled that Covey's confession could not be used in court because police had failed to inform him of his constitutional rights not to talk and to have a lawyer -- until an hour and 45 minutes into the interrogation.

The other boy, Abdi Ibrahim, was deemed by a judge on Jan. 9 to be incompetent to stand trial, at least temporarily. His case was recently brought back to Lewiston District Court and a judge is reassessing whether to find him competent.

Ibrahim is accused of starting the fire on May 3 in a garage between Bartlett and Pierce streets. That fire destroyed the apartment buildings at 149 Bartlett St., 110 Pierce St., 114 Pierce St. and 116 Pierce St.

The plea agreement in Morin's case was reached after negotiations between Assistant District Attorney Andrew Matulis and Morin's attorney, Richard Charest. The agreement capped Morin's prison time before probation at seven years.

The agreement gave Kennedy the option of sentencing Morin to anything from no jail time to the full seven years, which Matulis argued for on Wednesday.

The five-year prison term Kennedy ultimately imposed was part of a more complex, structured sentence that could keep Morin in and out of prison for up to 25 years if he fails to abide by the terms of his strict probation.

On the first arson charge, she sentenced Morin to a total of 12 years with seven years suspended and four years of probation.

On the second count, Morin was given an eight-year suspended sentence and four years probation.

On the third arson count, Morin was sentenced to a five-year suspended sentence and another four-year probation term. He will serve the probation terms consecutively, 12 years in all.

Matulis, who prosecuted the cases against Morin and Wood, said though both cases had their difficulties, the District Attorney's Office was not frustrated with how the legal system dealt with them.

"One of the difficult things in this case was Mr. Morin had committed a very serious crime that put a lot of people at risk, but when you look at him individually . . . we found out he had major mental health issues in addition to a very low IQ. These were all conditions that we took into account for the sentencing recommendations we made," Matulis said.

While Morin's assessed intelligence is low, it is not as low as Wood's. Wood tested as an adult to have an IQ of 55, compared to the average score of 100 -- only one-tenth of a percent of people would score below him on the test. While the court found Morin to be competent, Wood was deemed incompetent and has been released.

"I don't think there's any frustration on our part because of this," Matulis said. "This is how they are set forth in our laws, and we followed them to a tee."

Morin was accused of setting the fire on May 6, 2013, while he was staying at Wood's apartment at 131 Bartlett St.

Daniel Young of the state Fire Marshal's Office said in an affidavit seeking warrants for their arrest that Morin and Wood were standing on the street corner in the early morning when they talked about setting the buildings on fire, then agreed to do so.

"Brian Morin told us that he and Bryan Wood talked about burning the buildings because they were sick and tired of all the abandoned buildings in the city that were not being repaired by the landlords," Young said in the affidavit.

In a police interview detailed in the affidavit, Morin told investigators that he served as "lookout" while Wood used butane to start a fire at the rear of 118 Bartlett St. Both used the butane to douse a cushion from a discarded couch to start the fire that destroyed 114 Bartlett St.

Wood was originally interviewed as a witness to the fire, even approaching a police officer to volunteer information, and blamed the blaze on Morin.

Morin has remained in custody since his arrest May 10, 2013. The time he has been in jail will be taken off his sentence.

As conditions of probation, Morin will have to abide by a curfew requiring him to be home from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily. He is not allowed to possess matches or a lighter, use illegal drugs or alcohol, and must stay away from the Bartlett Street area, take his prescribed medication and undergo counseling.

Copyright 2014 - Portland Press Herald, Maine

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