2017-06-27 / Front Page

Police charge Sanford juveniles with mill arson

Demolition quotes being sought by city

SANFORD — The three boys charged with Class A felony arson in connection with the fire that gutted the rear portion of the vacant Stenton Trust mill on River Street denied the charges at a hearing at Biddeford District Court on Monday.  

Court documents on file at Springvale District Court show that Judge Deborah Cashman ordered the trio — a 12-year-old, and two 13-year-olds, all of Sanford, be held at the Long Creek Youth Development Center in South Portland while awaiting their next court appearance, set for July 27 at Biddeford District Court.

The Journal Tribune has chosen not to name the boys because they are juveniles. 

State Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas praised the work of investigators from his office, the Sanford Police, the Sanford Fire Department, Maine State Police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for their diligence.

“It was an amazing operation,” said Thomas at a news conference outside the mill on Monday. "Everybody pitched in to bring this to a conclusion.”

Thomas declined to be specific about what led authorities to believe the boys started the fire.

He said investigators found information and followed the leads.

He said drone footage showed burn patterns and that, coupled with security footage, led officials to the fire's point of origin on the third floor. 

The Stenton Trust mill building contains two 5-story parallel concrete buildings joined by a walkway. It was built in 1922 as part of the Goodall textile empire. In later years, Seamloc Carpet was located there followed by a series of small businesses. It has been vacant and abandoned for about a decade.

Fire was reported in the structure at 6:50 p.m. Friday. It spread throughout the rear tower of the building quickly and raged on through the night. Fire Chief Steve Benotti said 154 firefighters from 20 departments using 35 pieces of fire apparatus sprayed 7 million gallons of water on the old mill building — about 5.5 million of which came from nearby Number One Pond. 

Firefighters continued to put out hotspots throughout the weekend and into Monday.

Authorities said Monday that two homeless men, who had been staying in the mill in recent weeks and were missing after the fire, had been found in Portland.

Benotti said the intense heat means the steel beams in the rear portion of the mill have lost 90 percent of their tensile strength, there is some bowing of walls with potential for collapse. 

Firefighters have not been inside the rear tower because it is not safe to be there. But Benotti said floors four and five have collapsed into floor three. The property was fenced in Monday.

The portion of the mill that fronts on River Street sustained little damage.

Now, the city is working on next steps. City Manager Steve Buck said very preliminary estimates put the cost to demolish both towers of the structure and haul it away at around $500,000, but that figure is likely to change. He said he is in the process of getting cost estimates and is engaging an engineer.

According to city records, the mill and the 6.8 acres it sits on is owned by Gateway Properties LLC, a company owned by Jonathan Morse, who purchased the mill in 1999. Buck said Morse, who now has a Reno, Nevada address, has told him he no longer owns the property, but city records show he does.

The mill structure was sold at auction in 2009 by a bank known at the time as Savings Bank of Maine for $210,000, which held the Gateway Properties LLC mortgage, but the prospective buyers never closed on the deal. They told municipal leaders at the time that the rear portion of the structure — the part that burned Friday night — was in too poor condition for renovation.

Property tax on the land and buildings has been unpaid for years.

Buck said it appears that the city will pay for demolition and then pursue reimbursement and the city may pursue a condemnation. 

“We want to be sure of environmental protections and are working with the DEP and EPA,” Buck said.

While an action by the EPA removed known hazardous materials some years ago, buildings of its age typically contain asbestos and lead paint. As well, two underground storage tanks that used to hold Bunker C oil remain on the property, Buck said.

Mark Rouillard, an owner of  of Central Furniture and Appliance, just across River Street from the big mill, said his great-grandparents moved here from Canada to work there. 

When Rouillard was 13-years-old, the store’s warehouse was located on the fourth floor of the portion of the old mill that burned, and he often worked there, he said. 

He praised firefighters for their work.

Rouillard said the mill has become a magnet for trouble since it became vacant about a decade ago.

Benotti thanked the City Council and city government for its continued support and expressed gratitude to those who had supplied water and food to first responders at the scene.

There have been a number of smaller fires at the mill over the years, but none comparing to the magnitude of Friday night’s blaze.

He said the building has been a nuisance since it was abandoned and despite attempts to secure it, people have broken in.

Benotti said juvenile fire setting is a problem in the state.

— Senior Staff Writer Tammy Wells can be contacted at 324-4444 (local call in Sanford) or 282-1535, ext. 327 or twells@journaltribune.com.

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