Firefighters and emergency workers respond to a fire on the second floor of the Lawrence Block on South Main Street in Brattleboro, last July. (Zachary P.
Firefighters and emergency workers respond to a fire on the second floor of the Lawrence Block on South Main Street in Brattleboro, last July. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
Friday April 26, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- A Brattleboro man will serve up to seven years in prison for deliberately starting a fire that spurred the evacuation of an apartment building where he was a tenant.

James Ryan, 47, initially had agreed to a deal that called for a maximum five-year sentence in connection with the July 7 fire at Lawrence Block apartments on South Main Street.

But Judge David Suntag rejected that, calling for two additional years to be added to the maximum sentence because of the severity of the crime.

"It could have really created a lot more harm than it did," Suntag told Ryan Thursday in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division. "In a lot of ways, you're lucky. Everybody's lucky.

James Ryan appears in Windham District Court in Brattleboro for his arraign­ment. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
James Ryan appears in Windham District Court in Brattleboro for his arraign­ment. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
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Ryan in January had pleaded guilty to first-degree arson, reckless endangerment and providing false information to a police officer. He had been arrested within weeks of the blaze after an investigation by Brattleboro Police, Brattleboro Fire Department and state police.

Ryan reportedly told investigators he set the fire because the building's owner was taking too long to fix a leak and because he was past-due on his rent and faced eviction.

Firefighters responded to the apartments just before 6 p.m. July 7. No residents were hurt; the flames were extinguished quickly and caused relatively minor damage.

But Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver noted that the apartment building is wooden, and she said Ryan acknowledged using an accelerant to feed the flames.


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Also, Shriver said the fire was made more hazardous by its location.

"This was a multi-tenant apartment building," Shriver said. "The fire was not actually set in Mr. Ryan's apartment but above the apartment, near the main entrance and egress of the building."

It was only a quick response by Brattleboro firefighters that prevented the blaze from spreading, Shriver said.

At the same time, Shriver pointed out that Ryan has a history of mental illness and eventually cooperated with police.

Ryan's attorney, Rutland-based Chris Montgomery, also noted his client's mental-health issues.

"On top of that, he had drug and alcohol issues that clouded his judgment," Montgomery said, adding that Ryan had not been taking his medication.

Speaking just before he was sentenced, Ryan said he was "truly sorry" for setting the fire.

"I didn't expect this to happen," he said. "I did it, and this is the only way I'll be able to pay for it."

Ryan added that "I didn't ever really want to set it. I just didn't have a clear mind."

But Ryan also seemed to contradict himself when he said he thought the fire would cause more damage than it did -- an assertion that troubled the judge.

After Ryan agreed to accept the more-lengthy sentence Suntag requested, the judge said Ryan should use his time under state supervision to work through his issues.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.