PORTLAND, Maine — An apartment house where six people died in a fire had been neglected during foreclosure and lacked alternative exits, allowing several bedrooms to become “death traps” when the blaze spread upstairs, a prosecutor said Monday to open the homeowner’s manslaughter trial.
The deaths were caused by the “unconscionable conduct” of landlord Gregory Nisbet, who failed to have working smoke detectors, adequate exits and other safety measures, Assistant Attorney General John Alsop said.
Nisbet had stopped making mortgage payments on the building, wasn’t maintaining the structure and wasn’t even keeping tabs on who lived there, Alsop said.
“The fire was a foreseeable risk that he chose to disregard,” Alsop said.
If he’s convicted, Nisbet would be the first Maine landlord to be successfully prosecuted for manslaughter because of poor conditions of a building. Many landlords in the state are watching the trial to see the extent to which a landlord can be held accountable for tenants’ actions.
Defense lawyer Matt Nichols said the state was improperly holding the landlord to a higher safety standard by classifying the home as a boarding house. He said the home should be properly classified as a “single family dwelling” with less stringent requirements.
Nisbet is on trial for six counts of manslaughter in Portland, where the fire happened Nov. 1, 2014, just hours after a Halloween party had ended.
The fire killed Nicole Finlay, David Bragdon Jr., Ashley Thomas and Christopher Conlee, along with Topsham resident Maelisha Jackson. Rockland resident Steven Summers was hospitalized and died two days later. Several others were able to escape.
The fire was determined to be an accident: It was started by smoking materials that were improperly discarded on the front porch.
But the “legal cause” of the deaths was the landlord’s negligence, Alsop said. The screams of three third-floor victims indicated they were alive and would’ve survived if they had been able to escape, he said.
The prosecutor acknowledged the tenants had disabled smoke detectors and blocked a hallway that prevented an alternative exit on the second floor.
The third-floor bedrooms created in a former attic had no alternate exit other than a rope ladder provided by the landlord, and the windows violated code because they were too small, Alsop said.
“There’s no way he should’ve rented out those attic rooms,” he said.
The building went into foreclosure in 2012 and all of the tenant leases had expired, Alsop said. The porch had rot and there were plumbing leaks, he said.
Things had gotten so out of hand that some people were living temporarily in the cellar or even outside using extension cords for electricity, the prosecutor said.
The case is being decided by Superior Court Justice Thomas Warren after Nisbet waived his right to a jury trial. The maximum penalty for manslaughter is 30 years.