PARIS — A volunteer firefighter admitted to investigators that he started a blaze that destroyed two vacant houses in the village of Locke Mills in Greenwood early Tuesday when he ignited a pile of dry leaves, according to an affidavit released Wednesday.
Jeffrey A. Tyler, 28, who served on the Greenwood Fire Department, has been charged with two counts of arson. He was taken to Androscoggin County Jail on Wednesday.
According to an affidavit by senior investigator Daniel L. Young of the State Fire Marshal's Office, Tyler said he started a fire at the rear of a barn on the property at 238 Main St., owned by Bruce Connor of Chelmsford, Mass. Heat and windblown embers ignited the neighboring property at 236 Main St., owned by C. Mellen Kimball of Greenwood.
Young said he determined the cause of the fire to be near the rear of 238 Main St., and that Connor told Young he had shut off electrical power at the property a month ago.
Young suspected Tyler because a firefighter living one-tenth of a mile from the Greenwood fire station responded to the fire call within two minutes and saw Tyler arriving at the same time. Young said Tyler lives 1.2 miles from the station.
Young also spoke to Chief Michael Jodrey of the Bethel Fire Department. Young said Jodrey told him that there had been fires at the house of Tyler's parents and barn, his trailer and several woods fires "where Tyler seemed to know exactly where they were."
Tyler initially told investigators that he drove to the scene from his house, but he later admitted to being at the houses at Locke Mills. He said he was upset because his wife and 2-year-old daughter had visited family in Florida and he learned Sunday that they would not be returning to Maine.
Tyler said he went for a walk near the houses and ignited three dry maple leaves with his lighter before dropping them to the ground, where they ignited other leaves. He said the action was symbolic to represent him, his wife and his daughter and "the two that landed together or nearest his daughter's leaf would be where his daughter should be."
Tyler told investigators that a 6- to 8-foot section of dry leaves under and against the barn was burning when he left, and he did not report the fire. He said he drove home and later drove back along Route 26 when he heard the fire call on his pager, at which point he went to the fire station.
Tyler denied being under the influence of drugs or alcohol and said he did not set the fire so he could respond as a firefighter.
Six fire departments responded to the blaze, which was reported by a
night watchman at the nearby Saunders Brothers mill around 3:15 a.m.
Firefighters were unable to save the two buildings, but they kept the fire
from spreading to the nearby Round Pond Corner Store. Damage to the
two houses, attached barns and contents was estimated at $500,000.
At Tyler's initial appearance Wednesday in Oxford County Superior Court, Assistant District Attorney Richard Beauchesne asked that bail be set at $5,000 cash or $50,000 worth of real estate. Beauchesne said Tyler had no previous criminal record, but the crime was serious and risked the safety of responding firefighters.
Defense lawyer Maurice Porter said Tyler was subject to "incredibly high-pressure emotional circumstances" during the incident, is employed and supports his daughter. He asked that a pre-trial bail contract be set.
Justice Donald Marden accepted both recommendations. He set the cash and surety bail and said Tyler could be released if he could get a pre-trial contract.
Chief Jim Owens of the Greenwood Fire Department said Tyler had been on the fire department since September.
"He'd been real active," Owens said. "We had no reason to complain about the guy."
Tyler has no previous criminal convictions, according to a search of state
Owens called a special meeting of the department's firefighters for Wednesday night. He said some firefighters had been the target of critical remarks in the wake of the incident.
"They didn't do anything wrong, and I just want to reiterate to them that just because we had one bad person that we didn't even know about, it doesn't reflect on all of them," Owens said. "They did an excellent job, even though they lost two houses. They saved the store, and they did what they were supposed to do."