LACONIA — Some heads-up police work, surveillance cameras, and a dog bite were three of the things that led police to charge Jason Clairmont with three counts of arson Tuesday.
Clairmont, 36, had been living in Gilmanton for the last two months but is a Laconia native. He is now being held on $50,000 cash-only bail at the Belknap County House of Corrections.
He is charged with three separate counts of arson — two on January 25 and one on September 4 of 2013. The earlier fire was a car fire started in a parking lot behind a Main Street business.
According to partially redacted police affidavits obtained from the 4th Circuit Court, Laconia Division yesterday and statements made to the media by police and fire officials, Clairmont was found by Gilford Police in the area near one of two suspicious fires reported in the early morning of January 25.
Police Capt. Bill Clary said yesterday that the first call that morning was for a car fire on Academy Street. He said while firefighters were extinguishing that fire, police officers including a Gilford officer, were patrolling other sections of the city. He said it was a Laconia Police officer who found the trellis afire at 91 Highland Street and reported it. A Gilford Police officer who came to the city to assist with patrolling found Clairmont in the area.
He said Clairmont had been bitten by a dog but information he gave police about the why and where he was bitten did not correspond with other information gathered by police including images from surveillance cameras from around the city that showed him at certain places at certain times.
Clary said Gilford Police took Clairmont to Lakes Region General Hospital for treatment of the dog bite. Police said yesterday it was not a bite from a police K-9.
Police picked Clairmont up in Gilmanton on Tuesday. Gilmanton Chief Joe Collins said he didn't know him and had never had any contact with him.
Affidavits said Clairmont admitted to police, during what his attorney John Bresaw said was seven hours of questioning, that he threw a cigarette into the car on Academy Street but didn't know if it had started a fire.
Clairmont also said he may have been smoking a cigarette too close to the lattice of the house on Highland Street but that he didn't remember.
He also admitted he accidentally burned the top of the vehicle parked in a Main Street parking lot on September 4 when a cigar he was smoking fell onto the convertible top.
Clary said yesterday that police knew about the September 4 fire when it happened but the woman who owned the car never reported anything unusual to police until some time after the fire.
It is believed the September 4 fire was the first of 19 suspicious fires in Laconia and Belmont (a dumpster fire at the Belknap Mall). Subsequent fires range from small dumpster fires, two fires at Pitman's Freight Room on New Salem Street, and two major building fires — one at the corner of Fair and Court Street on September 22 that caused nearly a million dollars in damage and one at Christmas Island on September 29 that destroyed a building that had been slated for demolition.
In addition to admitting some complicity in the three fires for which he has been charged, affidavits said Clairmont admitted to accidentally throwing a cigarette into a dumpster by Hector's restaurant on October 31. He said he tried to extinguish the fire with some water.
"Within minutes of this dumpster fire, Pitman's Freight Room was found on fire for a second time," read the affidavits. The next sentence in that paragraph has been redacted by mutual agreement between City Prosecutor Jim Sawyer, Bresaw, and Judge Jim Carroll, who reviewed the document yesterday.
Clary said yesterday that at a few points in time, Clairmont has lived in his family's home, which is located next door to both Pitman's Freight Room and the Laconia Police Department. He said police are still developing a time line as to where Clairmont was living and when he was living there.
Most recently, Clairmont has been living at 33 Mallard Avenue in Gilmanton. His landlord said yesterday that he, his girlfriend, and their two small children moved in on November 17.
She said they seemed like a nice couple and she knew he was working for Four Corners Construction in Gilmanton.
In court yesterday, public defender John Bresaw argued for $50,000 personal recognizance bail, saying Clairmont was the sole support of his young family and was collecting unemployment because he was laid off from his job, though he occasionally picked up some work. While he is incarcerated, said Bresaw, Clairmont can not get unemployment. He argued that his girlfriend and children would lose their rented house.
Bresaw also said that there is nothing in the affidavits that indicate the fires in which he admitted some role were anything but accidental. He said Clairmont agreed to wear a bracelet, would abstain from alcohol and drug use, and would even quit smoking so that he didn't have any matches or lighters on him.
Clairmont's landlord said yesterday she and her husband haven't seen his girlfriend in about two weeks and that Clairmont had told them she was visiting an aunt in Vermont and had taken the children with him.
She said she always saw his girlfriend driving the car and that her husband had gone to Belmont recently to pickup Clairmont when he had called him for a ride.
Judge Carroll ordered that Clairmont have no contact with his girlfriend, however said he can speak through his parents to her about matters that relate to his family and only his family.
Clary said yesterday that although Claimont has been charged with setting three fires, police and fire officials including the state Fire Marshal said they are still investigating all of the remaining fires.
Clary said that while they haven't concluded that Clairmont was the perpetrator of the remaining fires, he said they have ruled out several other people.
He encourages anyone with any information to contact the Laconia Police at 524-5252 or the GReater Laconia Crime Line at 524-1717.
"This was outstanding police work," Clary said giving a nod to the two detectives who worked for four months to make an arrest. "It's a big burden off the Fire Department and the community.
Fire Chief Ken Erickson said that he couldn't release any of the details about any of the fires and wouldn't say if accelerants were in any of them. He said that is part of the onging investigation.
Erickson said the idea of having an arsonist in the city was very unsettling to residents and firefighters and thanked the police for their efforts in making Clairmont's arrest.
He said it was a difficult time for firefighters knowing there was at least one arsonist in the city.
"Any time we respond we have a concern for firefighter safety," he said adding that any time fire apparatus leaves the station there is the potential for someone to get hurt.
"To reduce this threat gives us great relief," he said.
Both Clary and Erickson spoke about the resources that were put into the arson investigations. Erickson said getting called to two simultaneous building fires overwhelms a small department like Laconia.
He noted that responding to the building fires brought firefighters and other resources from neighboring communities and that he wanted to thank them for all the support given to his department during the past four months.
He said it took multiple communities 13 hours to extinguish the fire at the former Aubuchon Hardware building on Court Street.
"The financial resources have been astronomical," said Clary noting that the Police Department had to take dedicated drug detectives from drug investigations and assign them to the arson investigations. He wanted to thank the Gilford Police for assisting them during this time.
Clary said police believe that there are other people who know more about the fires and he encourages to come forward.
As to ascribing a motive to Clairmont's alleged fire setting, Clary said they have none. He said the department is familiar with Clairmont but nothing in his past indicated he would possibly become an arsonist.
While Clairmont's criminal record is extensive, the most serious charges — one burglary and two simple assaults — were several years ago, the most recent being a 2008 burglary. Clary confirmed that Clarimont's driver's license was under suspension and his record shows he has multiple violations for driving after suspension, misuse of plates, and driving unregistered off-road vehicles.