Quechee man’s charges from Hartford apartment fire include arson, burglary

Editor’s note: This story by John Lippman was originally published in the Valley News on June 2.

Danielle Garceau, right, and friend Ashlee Wilson, left, stand outside Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction after attending the Wednesday arraignment of Ethan Lavoie of Quechee on charges related to the alleged arson fire that destroyed Garceau’s apartment on May 23. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

HARTFORD — Nine days after a fire damaged a block of efficiency apartments and displaced more than a dozen residents, a Quechee man faces criminal charges alleging he torched one of the apartments because of a dispute over a drug deal.

Ethan Lavoie of Quechee Hartland Road pleaded not guilty to charges of arson, burglary, petit larceny, negligent operation of a vehicle and leaving the scene of a crash in connection with the May 23 fire during his arraignment on Wednesday in Windsor Criminal Court in White River Junction.

He is being held at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield pending $10,000 cash bail.

Citing Lavoie’s felony convictions in other states and the defendant’s “somewhat limited ties to Vermont, the seriousness of the charges and the strength of the state’s case,” Superior Court Judge John Treadwell ruled that “there is a risk of flight that must be mitigated by the imposition of cash bail.”

Police say Lavoie set an apartment ablaze at the former Pleasant View Motel because he believed that the occupant robbed his fiancee of $100 during a drug sale.

Lavoie’s arrest on Monday followed an investigation by the Hartford Police Department into the late afternoon, two-alarm blaze during which a cat perished. The Red Cross secured emergency housing for 16 people who lived in the nine-unit apartment building.

The fire originated in and gutted the unit occupied by Danielle Garceau, who had just arrived at a friend’s home in Weathersfield when a neighbor called to tell her about the fire.

She rushed back home to find firefighters, police and other residents outside.

“Everything I owned was gone,” Garceau said in an interview on Wednesday, including her 3-year-old cat, Mario, who was determined to have died from smoke inhalation.

The investigation was aided by a review of video surveillance footage, which captured a vehicle traced back to Lavoie, 30, arriving at, then leaving, then returning to the scene shortly before and after the fire began.

The video shows a man entering and then exiting the unit in which the fire started and putting what appeared to be an appliance from the apartment in the back of his pickup truck, according to an affidavit prepared by Hartford police officer Cpl. Eric Clifford filed in support of the charges.

In the video, when the man in the pickup truck leaves, “within minutes smoke is seen billowing out” of Garceau’s unit, the affidavit says. A few minutes later, the video shows the same pickup truck — this time followed by another vehicle — re-enter the parking of the apartment.

This time the man gets out, walks over to where the room is on fire as if attempting to retrieve something before getting into the truck again and driving off.

The vehicle that followed the pickup truck into the apartment parking lot was a Honda Civic that had been sideswiped by the truck on Route 4, according to the affidavit.

Ethan Lavoie of Quechee is arraigned in Windsor Superior Court in White River Junction on Wednesday, June 1, on charges stemming from the alleged arson fire at Pleasant View Motel in Hartford on May 23. Attorney Jeff Sokolik is at right. Photo by James M. Patterson/Valley News

Garceau told investigators that she had left her apartment the day of the fire because she had gotten into an argument with her former boyfriend over his drug use and wanted to avoid him.

When investigators reached out to Lavoie and questioned him about the fire, he was evasive in his responses, police said, but when pressed about the video surveillance footage, he acknowledged that he had gone to the apartment building in search of Garceau’s ex-boyfriend.

Lavoie’s fiancee had purchased heroin from him, he said, but Lavoie alleged he ended up “robbing her for $100,” according to the affidavit.

Lavoie told investigators when he didn’t find the man at Garceau’s apartment, he grabbed a toaster oven and lit the bed with a “torch lighter,” thinking he was setting the former boyfriend’s possessions on fire, the affidavit.

Lavoie told investigators he “thought that the sheets and mattress would just burn and then go out,” the affidavit said.

The reason he returned to the scene is that “he wanted to let the cat out,” the affidavit said.

Arguing for conditional release on lower bail, defense attorney Jeff Sokolik said that Lavoie had shown himself cooperative with police and had never failed to make a court appearance.

Although acknowledging Lavoie’s difficulties with substance abuse, Sololik told the court “his previous history does not indicate anything of violence.”

Windsor County State’s Attorney Ward Goodenough, in pressing for a $10,000 cash bail, noted that because Lavoie — who is originally from Idaho — has “very short and limited” ties to the state in addition to prior felony convictions and initially gave investigators “alternative versions” of what occurred at the motel, he posed additional risk of flight” which justifies a higher bail.

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