Portland landlord pleads not guilty in fire that killed 6

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PORTLAND — The owner of a Noyes Street home that burned last November, killing six people, pleaded not guilty Friday in Cumberland County Superior Court to six counts of manslaughter and four counts of violation of the life safety code

Gregory Nisbet, 49, of 124 Noyes St., was indicted July 9 by a Cumberland County grand jury.

Nisbet was released on personal recognizance bail, Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said Friday in an email.

A trial date has not been set.

Portland firefighters responded just after 7 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 1, 2014, to a report of a fire at the two-unit building at 20-24 Noyes St. The bodies of tenants David Bragdon Jr., 27; Ashley Thomas, 29; and Nicole Finlay, 26; as well as visitors to the building Christopher Conlee, 25, of Portland; and Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham were found in the building.

The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined the victims at the scene died from smoke inhalation.

A sixth victim, 29-year-old Rockland man Steven Summers, leaped from the upper floors of the 94-year-old building to escape. He was hospitalized with severe burns, and succumbed to his injuries three days later at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The fire was Maine’s deadliest in nearly four decades, and the deadliest in the city since a 1963 fire on Gilman Place killed six children in 1963.

Investigators determined that the cause of the fire was improperly disposed smoking materials on the porch. They also said the smoke detectors in the house did not work, and the fire spread through the house because the front door was left open.

After his client was indicted, Nisbet’s lawyer, Matt Nichols, called the charges unwarranted.

“What I think was a tragic accident has been turned into a criminal arraignment,” he said.

Anderson previously said the code violations, which also included a lack of a secondary access to the third floor bedrooms where Thomas and Finlay were found, contributed to the deaths.

A second floor stairway was also blocked by a bookcase.

The victims families have also filed wrongful death civil suits against Nisbet in Cumberland County Superior Court, seeking at least $11 million in claims because of the code violations also cited in the criminal indictment.

The Noyes Street fire spurred scrutiny of the city’s fire code inspection process, in part because of multiple complaints lodged over the years by neighbors alleging dangerous buildups of trash and combustibles on the property, and the addition of third-floor living space in what was supposed to be a two-unit building.

Talks about a potential plea deal between Anderson and Nisbet’s attorney had been going on since January, but broke down in June, the district attorney’s office said when the indictment was made public.

If convicted, Nisbet faces up to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000 on the manslaughter count alone.

Staff writer David Harry of The Forecaster contributed to this report.

Sidebar Elements

The Nov. 1, 2014, fire that destroyed this building at 20-24 Noyes St. in Portland and killed six people was caused by “improperly discarded smoking material,” according to a report released Jan. 21 by the state fire marshal’s office.