Navy veteran gets 20 years for burning historic building in Maine
AUBURN, Maine (Tribune News Service) — In sentencing an Auburn Navy veteran Tuesday to 20 years for arson, a judge chastised the U.S. military for discharging a veteran without treatment for his post-traumatic stress disorder.
Prosecutors also pointed to the mental health treatment of Justin Knight, 36, of 138 Spring St., at the hands of the U.S. Navy as "deplorable."
Knight was sentenced in Androscoggin County Superior Court on four arson charges to 20 years in prison. He pleaded guilty to them in April.
Justice Harold Stewart II suspended 12 years of that sentence. Knight has spent the past three years at Androscoggin County Jail, time for which he'll be credited toward the eight years he was sentenced to serve.
On Sept. 30, 2018, Knight set fire to a 138-year-old building at 63 Academy St. that was run as a boarding house.
The Empire-style building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and had been owned by the same family for three generations spanning more than 70 years.
Members of that family told the judge Tuesday of the impact the fire had on them and the community.
The owner of the building, Lisa LeBrun, recorded a 10-minute photo montage that was shown in court of the fire's destruction, which was estimated to have caused roughly $2 million in damage.
Assistant District Attorney Andrew Matulis told Justice Stewart that a police officer responded to a dispatched call shortly after midnight to the boarding house where he found the porch engulfed in flames and tenants fleeing the burning building.
Officers went inside to clear the remaining residents, but by the time they reached the second floor, the interior walls and a bathroom were on fire, Matulis said.
Six of the building's nine tenants were inside at the time of the fire, Matulis said.
All of the residents lost their property, he said.
A police detective said the gas cap of a vehicle parked outside the building had a burning dollar bill sticking out of the gas tank opening, but the flame hadn't ignited the gasoline.
A fire investigator said there were two areas of the building where fires had been set.
A witness told investigators she had seen a man setting the fires, including in a trash can on a porch on one side of the building. She also saw a man carrying boards up to the other side of the building. She said she "could hear the breaking of wood and then saw flames coming from the other porch."
Knight had also unsuccessfully attempted to ignite the gas tank of a pickup truck parked in the area, Matulis said.
Police interviewed Knight after a domestic violence call involving his girlfriend. He eventually confessed to setting the fires at what he called the "big scary house," Matulis said.
Knight, who lived near the boarding house, said he had been fighting with his girlfriend at the time. He said he saw the cardboard and he lit it on fire, Matulis said.
Knight told police the cardboard was under the porch. He admitted setting a second fire in a trash can on the other porch.
On Tuesday, Knight, who appeared in court by videoconference from Androscoggin County Jail, said: "I grew up in a loving home with a loving family. I was taught morals. I'm not a bad person. I was just going through a lot of stuff, and I still am."
Knight said he'd like to apologize to "everybody I hurt, the people inside that building. I know it could have killed somebody that night. I really am sorry if there are people I hurt. And I'm sorry for everything that you guys are going through."
He continued, "I'm not a bad person; I just did a very bad thing that night. I am really a good person. I truly am sorry for what I did. I never meant to harm anybody. I don't know what caused me to do what I did that night, but I can't take it back and I wish I could, I really do."
In LeBrun's video, she narrated the depths of destruction the fire caused the structure as well as the depths of despair it caused her, her family and tenants as she sought to salvage whatever she could of the belongings of the people who lived there and the historic structure's integrity, architectural beauty and family heirlooms.
She detailed the laborious process of trying to keep out the weather with no roof through the following fall and winter months.
Her sister, Estelle LeBrun-Ramsey, told Justice Stewart that "the grief is as intense today as it was on that dreadful morning, two years, 10 months, and four days ago" when the fire left their family's "cherished" property "blackened, charred and without life."
LeBrun-Ramsey said, "It is a cruel reality that has broken hearts, many hearts."
The family members offered Knight forgiveness and hoped he'd get the mental health assistance he needed.
Knight served more than a decade in the Navy after graduating from Edward Little High School in Auburn, including tours in combat, defense attorney Donald Hornblower said.
Knight experienced two traumatic events during his time aboard a military vessel that likely cause his PTSD, including watching as one of his best friends drowned while maneuvering between two boats.
That man was a husband and father.
Knight, who was single, "started to think, 'That should have been me,'" Hornblower said.
Feelings of guilt and shame led to alcohol and drug abuse as he sought to self-medicate, Hornblower said.
Another time, while his ship was aiming to guard a cargo ship, a Somali pirate pointed a grenade launcher at him.
"And he was frozen with fear and thought, 'Is this when I die?'" Hornblower said. Instead, it was those pirates who ended up dying.
"They were killed, they're on fire and they were jumping in the water," as Knight looked on, Hornblower said.
Knight was treated for his substance abuse, then left the Navy with less than an honorable discharge.
He received no treatment afterward and no veteran's benefits.
Only recently has the military stepped up and taken responsibility for his treatment, Hornblower said.
Shortly before ordering his sentence, Justice Stewart noted the irony that Knight's traumatic experiences were later revisited on the victims of his criminal conduct.
"What's happened here is someone that had untreated pain, untreated PTSD, over a course (of) time became exacerbated, resulting in even further exacerbation, even broader pain," Stewart said, referring to the lack of treatment by the military after Knight's discharge. "And I think it's safe to say, further PTSD, to those that were directly impacted, the residents and owner of the building, family members and community at large. And so this is a tragic example of how untreated emotional well-being, particularly PTSD, can just become far broader in scope."
Stewart also sentenced Knight to concurrent sentences of eight years apiece to the three other arson charges as well as six months on a domestic violence assault charge.
After his release from prison, Knight will be on probation for four years, during which he'd be barred from having alcohol or illegal drugs for which he can be tested at random. He won't be allowed to have any incendiary or explosive devices for which he can be searched at random.
He must undergo mental health and substance abuse counseling, enroll in a certified batterers' program and abide by a curfew.
Knight must pay restitution to Lisa LeBrun of nearly $50,000 as well as $1,000 apiece to two insurance companies.
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