Portland landlord not guilty of manslaughter; fire victims to be remembered

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PORTLAND — Less than two weeks after a landlord was found not guilty of manslaughter for six deaths in a Noyes Street, a celebration of the victim’s lives on Sunday will mark the second anniversary of the Nov. 1, 2014, blaze.

Civil lawsuits are also pending against building owner Gregory Nisbet, who was found guilty of one code violation Oct. 21 in Cumberland County Superior Court.

“The verdict does not change the way I wanted to approach this at all,” Dave Foster, a friend of three of the people who died in the fire at 20-24 Noyes St., said Monday. “In my head, this has always been for the people who knew the victims. Obviously, the community has always been welcome to come.”

Foster and the Noyes Street Fire Memorial Committee organized the Stars of Light Celebration that is scheduled from 1-4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, at Longfellow Park, between Noyes, Longfellow and Oakdale streets.

“We are just trying to do a group thing, it is not going to be super-structured,” he said.

After Justice Thomas Warren found Nisbet not guilty of the six manslaughter charges and all but one misdemeanor charge, Portland Attorney Tom Hallett said the wrongful death lawsuits filed by surviving family members will move forward.

“This is not a difficult case for the plaintiffs to establish, in my opinion,” Hallett said. “My analysis has not changed a lot from the first month after I got the case and we investigated it.”

Hallett represents Ashley Summers, the widow of Steven Summers, but said the civil cases, seeking as much as $11 million in damages, have been consolidated by the court to be heard together.

“We certainly want to seek as much redress as we can and push as hard as we can,” Hallett said. “There are two totally different views of the evidence.”

Warren said the six deaths ”were beyond tragic.” But the judge could not find “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Nisbet was to blame for the deaths.

The Office of the State Fire Marshal determined the fire was accidental.

Summers, 29, was visiting the house. The fire also killed residents David Bragdon Jr., 27, Ashley Thomas, 29, and Nicole Finlay, 26, and guests Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham, and Chris Conlee, 25, of Portland.

All but Summers, of Rockland, died from smoke inhalation, according to the state Office of the Medical Examiner. Summers escaped the blaze, but died four days later at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston from burns he suffered.

It was the deadliest fire in Portland since December 1963.

In civil suits, the preponderance of evidence, as opposed to a reasonable doubt, is what a judge or jury must consider. Hallett said that includes accumulations of garbage in the building, a lack of working smoke detectors, and complaints to the city about the conditions at the house.

Hallett also cited Nisbet’s conviction on the charge that there were inadequate means of escape from the third-floor bedroom used by Thomas and Finlay.

Nisbet, 51, faces a possible six-month jail sentence and $1,000 fine. A sentencing hearing will be scheduled in the next couple weeks, Warren said.

The landlord did not speak publicly at the trial, but may speak at the sentencing hearing, his attorney, Matthew Nichols, said.

The landlord has been “through two years of hell” and expressed remorse privately, Nichols said. That sorrow “is going to be with him for the rest of his life, and I realize it’s more pain for the friends and family, especially the kids, but Greg has not been spared,” he said.

At Sunday’s event in Longfellow Park, Foster said, there will be food and music, and a chance for people to step up and talk about the victims.

“I want to make sure people feeling down about this know there are other people who feel the same way,” he said. “This is where we are going to be Sunday.

Jake Bleiberg and Stephen Betts of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report. David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Pumpkins sit on the foundation at 20-24 Noyes St. in Portland, all that’s left of the building where six people died in a fire Nov. 1, 2014. The house was razed in January 2015, and a celebration of the victims’ lives will be held Sunday at Longfellow Park.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.