Gregory Nisbet, acquitted of manslaughter, got a 90-day sentence for a misdemeanor safety violation in his building on Noyes Street, the site of Portland’s deadliest fire in four decades.
Assistant Attorney General Bud Ellis said the case of landlord Gregory Nisbet, left, has made property owners more vigilant about fire safety. Staff file photo by Ben McCanna
Nearly four years after an apartment fire killed six people in Portland, the landlord will go to jail.
Gregory Nisbet was acquitted in 2016 on six counts of manslaughter, but found guilty of a misdemeanor fire code violation because third-floor bedrooms at the Noyes Street building lacked a secondary exit. His 90-day jail sentence is believed to be the first time a Maine landlord was ordered to serve time for a safety code violation.
Nisbet fought the conviction at every turn, but on Thursday, Maine’s highest court rejected his appeal. He must report to jail within 48 hours.
Luke Rioux, the attorney representing Nisbet, said he and his client are disappointed in the outcome.
“Mr. Nisbet wants to express his profound sadness at the loss of life caused by the fire at his Noyes Street building,” Rioux said. “That tragedy is on his mind every day and will be with him for the rest of his life. Nothing in this appeal diminishes the gravity of that loss or the sorrow he feels over it. The question at issue here was a technical one about what legal standard should apply to egress windows on 100-year-old buildings.”
The fire was the deadliest in Portland in four decades.
The duplex at 20 Noyes St. caught fire in the early hours of Nov. 1, 2014, when the young people inside were sleeping. Investigators said the blaze started on the front porch in a plastic receptacle for cigarette butts. It tore quickly through the building, which lacked functioning smoke detectors. Flames blocked a stairwell that might have allowed the people inside to escape.
Victims of the Noyes Street fire. Top row, from left: Ashley Thomas, David Bragdon, Maelisha Jackson. Bottom row, from left: Christopher Conlee, Nikki Finlay, Steven Summers. Photos courtesy of families
The victims were Nicole “Nikki” Finlay, 26; David Bragdon Jr., 27; Ashley Thomas, 29; Maelisha Jackson, 23, of Topsham; Steven Summers, 29, of Rockland; and Christopher Conlee, 25, of Portland. Bragdon, Finlay and Thomas were tenants. Jackson, Summers and Conlee were visiting the house for a Halloween party.
Lisa LeConte Mazziotti, Finlay’s mother, recently penned an op-ed calling for the city to create a permanent memorial to the victims on Noyes Street. She also wrote about her frustration that Nisbet was challenging his misdemeanor conviction and three-month sentence.
“I’m glad that it stands as is,” Mazziotti said Thursday. “Obviously I wish he had gotten a different sentence, but I am glad now that he’ll have to do his time, his little bit of time.”
Assistant Attorney General Bud Ellis said the families of the victims had been anxiously awaiting a decision on the appeal.
“We know the families were pleased to hear,” Ellis said. “It has been a very, very difficult process after all the tragedy occurred.”
In February, Nisbet also settled a lawsuit by families of the fire victims. Lawyers and the victims’ families were frustrated by the small amount of the settlement, which was limited because Nisbet’s only assets after the fire appeared to be a $300,000 payout on his fire insurance policy. Families of the victims received $45,000 each, with $30,000 going to a victim who was injured but survived the fire.
After the fire, the city set up a new Housing Safety Office and hired more inspectors. Many landlords are now required to register their units and pay an annual fee. Ellis said the tragedy has made property owners more vigilant about fire safety.
This case has changed the equation for enforcement purposes and for awareness,” Ellis said. Still, the sentencing shocked landlords in 2016. Brit Vitalius, president of the Southern Maine Landlords Association, said many are now concerned about the precedent that Nisbet’s case has set. While landlords want their apartments to be safe and many are trying to bring them up to code, Vitalius said, there are often minor violations in old buildings.
The size of the third-floor windows in Gregory Nisbet’s Noyes Street apartment building became a focus in the criminal case against him. He was found guilty of a code violation, sentenced to 90 days in jail and fined $1,000. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer
Followed in the future,” Vitalius said.
Nisbet had not yet served his sentence because of the pending appeal. A judge rejected his motion for a new trial last summer, and Nisbet then filed his appeal to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Nisbet’s lawyers dropped out of his case last fall because they were not being paid, and Rioux took up the case.
Rioux argued that the state’s fire code is unconstitutionally vague, and inconsistent enforcement is a violation of due-process requirements. The trial judge convicted Nisbet on fire code standards that were meant for more modern buildings that should not have applied to the Noyes Street house, Rioux said.
He also argued that Nisbet deserved a new trial because prosecutors didn’t turn over a memo on window openings from the State Fire Marshal’s Office to defense lawyers until after the trial was over.
Both the trial judge and the Supreme Judicial Court justices said the evidence still would have supported the conviction, even though Rioux said the defense could have used it to prove the third-floor window was a legal secondary exit.
Asked Thursday whether Nisbet feels responsible for the six deaths, Rioux said that matter had been decided by the criminal justice system.
“The judge found him not guilty on all of the counts related to actually causing harm, because he was in fact not criminally responsible for the tragedy,” Rioux said. “It doesn’t diminish the horror or the tragedy of it, but it does not make him criminally responsible.”
Rioux said his client had not yet decided whether to petition for post-conviction relief.