February 17. 2014 9:28PM

Berlin teens guilty of theater arson

Special to the Union Leader

BERLIN — Two Berlin teenagers told police they were looking for something to do the night their actions destroyed a landmark building and put 18 city firefighters at risk on one of this winter's worst nights.

The two are awaiting punishment after having recently been found delinquent by reason of arson, the Coos County prosecutor said Friday.

The judge's decision came in the juvenile division of Berlin District Court. The two males were not publicly identified since they were under 17 on a Friday night in mid-December when police say they used small pieces of paper — possibly including old theater tickets — to start a fire that consumed most of the century-old Princess Theater in downtown Berlin's Green Square.

One teen is in state custody at a juvenile facility; the other has been released to his family, according to Lt. Richard Plourde, a Berlin Police Department detective.

Juvenile hearings, as in this case, are generally closed to the public and the records are sealed.

Coos County Attorney John McCormick said Friday he usually does not get involved in District Court cases, but did so in response to a request for help from Berlin police.

"This was a large incident, so we gave them a hand. It was a terrible night, and kind of a hare-brained thing to do," said McCormick, who added that no specific motive had been established for the pair's actions.

"Some kind of twisted logic," he said.

"One of them thought it'd be cool," said Plourde, who said the pair were out "looking for something to do" that night, which had a wind-chill factor of minus-35. The two were tracked down after a detective "received a lead that led to several interviews," he said.

McCormick — speaking generally of juvenile cases — said a judge could decide that those found delinquent should remain in some level of state custody until they turn 18; there could also be a provision for restitution.

In a city plagued by numerous arson fires in recent years, the out-of-business Princess Theater erupted in flames on the night of Dec. 13, a year after a smaller fire had been set there.

Berlin Fire Lt. Bill Maddalena said it became immediately clear that firefighters were in for a long, difficult and dangerous task in the frigid weather when they got started at 6:30 p.m.

One hydrant broke apart in the cold. Water from fire hoses quickly froze, creating treacherous footing for emergency personnel, he said. It wasn't long before the old theater became encased in a thick block of ice, Maddalena said.

Inside, the wooden-frame building's "bow-truss" roof construction gave way early. Firefighters battled the fire and weather for more than seven hours before they cleared the scene at 2 a.m. on Dec. 14. A relief crew was called back later when a "hot spot" was discovered.

No firefighters were injured in the effort, Maddalena said at the time.

Berlin police Detective Sgt. Jeff Lemoine and Detective Wade Goulet handled the investigation, along with Detective Mike Cote of New Hampshire State Police Troop F in Twin Mountain, said Plourde.