Phillips man charged in 2017 fire at Falls General Store in Farmington

Jul. 6—FARMINGTON — A Phillips man is charged with arson in a fire at Falls General Store on April 4, 2017.

On Friday, investigators from the Office of the State Fire Marshal arrested Kurt Searles, 34, on charges of arson with intent to collect insurance proceeds, and conspiracy to commit arson, according to court documents.

The Farmington Fire Rescue Department responded to a report of fire at a two-story building housing the store and an apartment above it at 176 Croswell St. Fire Chief Terry Bell requested the Office of the State Fire Marshal investigate the origin and cause.

Firefighters observed a fire in the basement and the right sidewall of the store. Doors were all locked, according to state Fire Investigator Jeremy Damren’s probable cause affidavit filed in a Farmington court for an arrest warrant.

Upon examination, the origin of the blaze was the basement ceiling, according to state Fire Investigator Stewart Jacobs.

State fire investigators, who have spent the past five years investigating, have interviewed more than 14 people.

New information was received this year that helped investigators move the case forward, according to Demren’s affidavit.

Searles is the son of the store’s then-owner, Dan Searles, who left for a vacation cruise March 28, 2017, along with his girlfriend, Lori Berry. They were not home when the fire started.

The store has since been demolished and debris removed. Dan Searles and Berry bought the store for $225,000 and put a $50,000 down payment on it in 2014.

Prior to the fire, the building was put up for sale, according to Damren.

In May 2017, Fire Investigator Jacobs met with Oil and Solid Fuel Board Inspector Bruce Bristow in reference to Bristow’s inspection of the fire scene. Bristow indicated that the LP gas line had been manipulated and intentionally severed.

Based on Bristow’s information, Jacobs determined that about 9 inches of hose line was missing, along with the quick connect coupling. He also determined the piece of metal recovered from the basement floor was not the right type of metal or configuration for that particular gas connector.

Leaking gas contributed to the fire, according to the affidavit. The digital recording for the security camera was missing from the office of the store, according to investigators.

Investigators also noted that personal items were absent from the second-floor apartment. There were a few pictures in a cabinet and minimal clothing in the apartment.

In April 2017, state Fire Investigator Ken MacMaster interviewed Kurt Searles, who told MacMaster that he had purchased flea bombs just prior to the fire and brought them to his father’s apartment above the store. He arrived at the apartment around 8:30 p.m. April 4, 2017, and set six or seven flea bombs off. While activating the bombs, some of the compound got in his eyes, according to the affidavit.

He left an unused package of flea bombs either on a counter or under the sink. He had been given a key to the store and entered through the bakery door, which was locked, and took a beverage from the cooler. He told investigators that he left the store about 9 p.m. While in the store, he did not see, smell or observe anything unusual.

On June 27, 2018, Damren reviewed the contents of Kurt Searles’ cellphone and discovered Searles had searched for tracer incendiary ammunition. The bullets are projectiles with a pyrotechnic charge in their base, Damren wrote. He also saw a text message at 12:56 a.m. on April 5, 2017, to someone named Katya in Searles’ phone. The message read “They got it out,” and “one whole wall burned.”

Kurt Searles denied having anything to do with the fire.

Hanover Insurance paid Daniel Searles and Berry a total of $345,000 for the loss, Damren wrote.

Kurt Searles was taken Friday to the Franklin County Detention Center in Farmington. Bail was set at $5,000 cash. He was released from the jail Saturday after bail was posted.

Investigators from the Office of the State Fire Marshal were assisted during the arrest by the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. The investigation is continuing.

Anyone with information about the fire is asked to contact the fire marshal’s office 207-624-7076.

A conviction for arson ranges from 10 years up to 30 years.

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