Portland landlord indicted on 6 counts of manslaughter – Press Herald
Gregory Nisbet was indicted Friday in the deaths of residents at his Noyes Street duplex, which burned in November in the state’s deadliest fire in decades.
Gregory Nisbet, the owner of the Noyes Street duplex where six young adults died in a Nov. 1, 2014, fire, was indicted on six counts of manslaughter by a Cumberland County grand jury Friday.
The grand jury also indicted Nisbet on three misdemeanor code violations for allegedly not having working smoke detectors, clear stairwells and a second means of escape from an upstairs bedroom.
Nisbet had been in plea agreement negotiations with Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson for weeks, but those negotiations fell apart earlier this week.
Cumberland County District Attorney Stephanie Anderson said it is important to the state that Nisbet admit his responsibility in causing the deaths of the young people that perished in the fire.
“I think it’s important to the victims’ families that the charges reflect what happened,” Anderson said Friday afternoon. Plea negotiations “did hang up on whether the defendant was willing to take responsibility for the charge of manslaughter.” Prosecutors had offered fewer counts and would have recommended a lesser punishment than he might get if convicted in court.
Nisbet’s lawyer, Matthew Nichols, said his client wouldn’t plead to a manslaughter charge because he didn’t cause the deaths. He said Nisbet installed the required smoke detectors but current and former tenants disabled them.
“He didn’t cause the fire and he didn’t cause the smoke detectors to be dismantled,” Nichols said shortly after the indictments were handed up. “There’s an argument that’s a code violation, but we don’t believe that kind of activity rises to the level of gross negligence or in any way caused the deaths.”
A person is guilty of manslaughter if he recklessly or with criminal negligence causes the death of someone else. It is punishable by up to 30 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
A real estate broker and landlord of 20-24 Noyes St. and at least two other properties in Portland, Nisbet has been accused in lawsuits filed by victims’ families of offering individual rooms for rent at that building without making the life-safety upgrades that are required to protect tenants in a rooming house.
The fire killed Steven Summers, 29, of Rockland, Maelisha Jackson, 26, of Topsham, and Chris Conlee, 25, of Portland, who were visiting the house, and David Bragdon Jr., 27, Ashley Thomas, 29, and Nicole Finlay, 26, who were residents.
The cause of the Noyes Street fire was found to be accidental – a discarded cigarette ignited flames on the front porch. However, fire investigators concluded that the house did not have functioning smoke detectors, let alone the more sophisticated fire alarm system that would be required of a rooming house.
Nisbet had a reputation among some former tenants interviewed of being a relatively lax landlord, who would work with people who fell behind on rent. He also frequently declined to use leases, a practice called tenancy at-will, a somewhat controversial but not unheard-of practice among property owners that gives landlords and tenants flexibility, but can sometimes lead to disagreements about rental terms.
Meanwhile, colleagues in the real estate business said he is an outgoing guy who sought to see the big picture, not nickel-and-dime his tenants.
According to the indicment documents, the code violations, of the National Fire Protection Association standards, are for failure to provide a second means of escape from a bedroom, failure to encase inside stairwells with a fire barrier, failure to provide a fire alarm system in a rooming house or lodging, and failure to provide smoke alarms.
Fire officials said the fire started on the porch and quickly engulfed the front door. A rear staircase was blocked, forcing the three survivors to jump from second-story windows.
The fire focused attention on inspection requirements for apartments in Portland and ultimately led to calls for increased inspections. City firefighters had only been conducting proactive inspections of apartment buildings containing three or more units. However, nearly half of the city’s rental units are two-family homes like the one at 20-24 Noyes St.
City officials convened a housing safety task force, which recommended that the city create an office specifically to oversee rental units.
Portland city councilors voted Monday night to create a housing safety office that will be responsible for inspecting thousands of rental housing units in the city.
Nisbet, whose real estate business was in South Portland but who lives on Noyes Street in Portland, has been a licensed real estate broker since 1988, when he began working at his family’s real estate business, Downeast Realty.
He specialized in the sale of multifamily homes.
“He certainly was a successful broker,” Brit Vitalius, a Portland real estate broker, said of Nisbet in a February. “You can’t be a total flake and own a business in a small community for that long.”
This story will be updated.