57-month sentence in school gym fire

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PORTLAND – It was a case that left many in Fryeburg wondering why, and many others wondering where they’d play basketball and pursue other school activities.

But on Tuesday, the case came to a conclusion as a 19-year-old former Fryeburg Academy student was sentenced to 57 months in federal prison.

Maxx Noble, who used to live in Lovell, was also ordered to pay $1.8 million in restitution for his role in a fire that destroyed the school’s gymnasium.

Noble was acquitted of arson but convicted of conspiracy after a trial in August. The sentence imposed by U.S. District Court Judge D. Brock Hornby came close to the maximum penalty of 60 months in prison.

“I didn’t follow the trial,” said academy Headmaster Dan Lee on Tuesday evening, explaining why he wouldn’t comment on the sentence. “I wasn’t in the courtroom; it’s impossible to assess.”

No one was injured in the Oct. 12, 2005, fire which destroyed the academy’s $1.7 million recreation complex as well as athletic equipment.

Many private and public schools throughout Maine came to Fryeburg’s aid, offering equipment to replace that lost in the fire as well as opportunities to use their facilities if needed.

Even now, students practice in the Fryeburg Fair’s livestock show arena.

But the academy has started reconstruction, dubbing the effort The Phoenix Project and expanding it to include a 350-seat theater as well as athletic facilities. The entire project is estimated to cost $14 million. Lee said $8.6 million has already been raised privately for the effort. The academy also received $2.4 million from its insurance companies for damages to 50-year-old gym and recreation center.

Lee said the work on the school’s new field house and sports complex is about 70 percent complete. It should open in the spring. Construction of the theater will follow.

Noble’s attorney, Leonard Sharon of Auburn, acknowledged that Noble and co-defendant Philip Thibault were at the gym on the night of the fire and that they stole athletic equipment that was recovered near Noble’s home. But Sharon claimed that Noble left before Thibault set the fire.

Tuesday evening, Sharon said he was disappointed that Noble was sentenced to 57 months as a conspirator while Thibault, guilty of arson, was only sentenced to 40 months in prison.

“It’s within the sentencing guidelines,” he noted, but still questioned if Thibault’s cooperation warranted a lesser prison term than Noble.

Thibault “told the jury that my guy was a reluctant participant,” Sharon said, “and they believed him because he was only found guilty of conspiracy.”

Sharon said he may file an appeal, basing it on the gymnasium’s links to interstate commerce. For Noble to be guilty of a federal crime, Sharon said the government has to be able to show a direct link between the gym and federal laws.

Thibault, who testified against Noble, was sentenced in September to 40 months after pleading guilty to an arson charge. He was also ordered to pay nearly $1.8 million in restitution.

Thibault was arrested in December 2005 in Michigan. Noble was arrested in Florida and was returned to Maine in January 2006.

An academy Web site update on Phoenix Project states: “There has been a great deal of compromise and accommodation around athletics, music, and theater programs as well as school meetings and dances. We have struggled valiantly to make certain that every need was covered as completely as possible. Facilities offered by neighboring schools and North Conway hotels have been generous in their support, as has the Academy’s special angel, the remarkable Fryeburg Fair Association. By making their newly completed Livestock Show Arena available to the Academy, we were able to salvage our indoor practice seasons for both basketball and wrestling …”

The rebuilding project includes constructing a field house and athletic complex with indoor track, lockers and offices, wrestling room, and a student and community exercise and fitness center in addition to the theater.

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