PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — The owner of a building in Maine where six people died in a fire following a Halloween party two years ago was sentenced Thursday to three months in jail for his misdemeanor conviction.
Judge Thomas Warren also fined Gregory Nisbet $1,000. The sentence and fine come six weeks after the judge found Nisbet guilty of a code violation related to inadequate means of escape from third-floor rooms in his building. He was acquitted of his most serious charge, manslaughter.
Prosecutors said the rooms he rented in the duplex in Portland were “death traps” for the people who died there after a fire broke out in 2014.
Lisa Mazziotti, the mother of victim Nicole Finlay, said in court Thursday that she disagrees with Nisbet’s acquittal of manslaughter charges but hopes his conviction and sentence for the code violation will make landlords aware of the consequences of dangerous apartments.
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“Landlords who knowingly allow these conditions to exist are going to kill someone,” Mazziotti said. “Landlords all over the state are watching this case — will it underline the seriousness of the responsibility that falls on landlords?”
Ashley Summers, the widow of victim Steven Summers, said she had hoped for a stiffer penalty, but is hopeful other landlords will get the message. She said the sentence is unlikely to bring closure.
“I’m doing time my whole life,” she said. “This is not something that goes away.”
Nisbet addressed the court just before he was sentenced, saying he had “built a bond” with the tenants and mourns their deaths. He said he empathizes with “the pain and the hell” that their loved ones went through during the highly publicized, two-year court case.
“The eyes of landlords, tenants and code enforcement officers have been opened up across the city, the state and perhaps the country that we need to be aware of our surroundings,” he said.
The fire also killed building residents David Bragdon Jr., Ashley Thomas and Christopher Conlee, and Topsham resident Maelisha Jackson. Steven Summers, of Rockland, was hospitalized and died two days later. Several others were able to escape the building, which was in a highly populated section of the largest city in the state.
The fire was determined to be accidental, blamed on improperly discarded smoking materials on a porch. It was the deadliest fire in Maine in four decades. Lawsuits stemming from the fire are still in the court system.
The judge said a criminal penalty was warranted because three of the people who died would’ve had “some chance” if they’d been able to exit from the third floor.
“This was a knowing violation of the code,” he said.
Prosecutors said during the trial that Nisbet’s building lacked working smoke detectors and other safety measures. He also had stopped maintaining the building and vetting tenants because it was in foreclosure, they said. The building has since been demolished.
After the fire, Portland officials created a Housing Safety Office, and took other steps to try to ensure that the city’s rental stock is safe.
Nisbet will have until Dec. 22 to file an appeal. His attorneys said they need time to consult with Nisbet and determine if that’s something they want to do.