Rick Rothammer, the general manager of Stowe Cable Systems, was able to sleep Tuesday night, after spending the last week driving down to the company headquarters on Thomas Lane to make sure no one was trying to burn the building down again.
That’s because police investigators had called to tell him they’d caught the man responsible for at least eight acts of arson over the past two years. The alleged arsonist struck Stowe Cable twice in the past four months, the most recent just last week.
“How do I feel? I feel like I’m going to finally rest,” Rothammer said Wednesday.
Jeffrey Nolan, age 62, of Stowe, was arrested late Tuesday night after admitting to police that he set fires at the Stowe Public Library and the Stoware Common building on March 30, 2019; a chiropractor’s office on April 18, 2019, a three-bay garage and storage building on South Main Street on June 1, 2020; a commercial building at 571 South Main St. at the beginning of August last year; a Dumpster on River Road on Aug. 29 and the Stowe Cable Systems building just hours later; and the Stowe Cable building again last week, on Jan. 7.
Nolan’s admission follows a lengthy joint investigation involving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the Stowe Police Department, and the Vermont Department of Public Safety Fire and Explosion Investigation Unit.
Nolan was held for lack of $5,000 cash bail and arraigned Wednesday on 8 counts of 2nd degree arson.
Rothammer had effusive praise for Stowe Department Det. Fred Whitcomb and his Vermont State Police counterpart, Det. Sgt. Todd Ambroz, who have been frustrated by the arsonist for two years.
“Those two guys worked really hard on this case,” Rothammer said.
Whitcomb said Wednesday, “When you get to tell the victims in this case that you’ve made an arrest, that’s a good feeling.”
Caught in the act
Last week’s fire marked the first time the same property was hit twice. Neither attempt fully destroyed the Stowe Cable building, but the structure was heavily damaged last August, and the company was still recovering from that arson attempt.
“What’s so disconcerting about this thing is, with COVID-19, construction takes more time, so we had just barely got that building back together,” Rothammer said. “The day this happened, the guys were in there putting in new windows.”
Rothammer said the damage wasn’t as bad this time — “it’s mostly soot and smoke,” he said — but not for lack of trying on the perpetrator’s part.
He said he reviewed the video with investigators and watched Nolan start the blaze, right near a propane fuel line and air conditioning unit, both of which contain highly flammable materials.
“He started one heck of a good fire,” Rothammer said. “Whatever he was using for an accelerant, at one point it was shooting up the wall.”
Fortunately, the fire didn’t catch as well as intended, and appeared to have made its way to an interior space and was largely snuffed out. When the cable company crew came in just a short while later, opening the door let in fresh air, which re-ignited the fire, putting off billows of smoke.
At first, they thought the fire had been set inside and couldn’t find the source, until they walked around back and saw the rear of the building was blackened. They hit it with a fire extinguisher and put it out.
In the somewhat grainy Stowe Cable security camera footage, Nolan appears to walk away from the fire at an almost casual pace, face obscured by a mask and a hood. Rothammer had said, just one day before police arrested Nolan, the company would beef up its surveillance system for “the next time this clown comes around.”
But Whitcomb said the surveillance system in place, which Rothammer installed after the August fire, was “unequivocally” produced the piece of evidence that allowed police to close in on Nolan.
“That touched off a sequence of events,” Whitcomb said.
That sequence involved Whitcomb and Ambroz chatting with Nolan the morning of Jan. 7, which led them to believe he was “significantly involved” and which led to a search warrant for his Stowe home; which allowed Whitcomb to record Nolan’s statements.
“It was obvious he was being deceitful and his involvement was greater than he was letting on,” Whitcomb said.
Although Nolan had not previously been arrested by Stowe police, he was, as cops often say, “known to law enforcement.” Many people over the years have called after seeing him walking around late at night, which some called “pretty fishy.” Nolan himself was a frequent caller and visitor to the police department, too.
He has long been on Whitcomb’s short list of arson suspects.
“He’s suspicious, to say the least,” Whitcomb said. “Almost reclusive.”
How did Whitcomb connect the man in the Stowe Cable video to Nolan? He had seen the way Nolan walks on several other surveillance videos, including the cameras at the Stowe police department.
“It was overwhelming when we compared the videos, and we connected the dots,” he said. “We knew we had to make a move, but wanted to have something in our pocket before we went in.”
That something was the Stowe Cable video footage.
Two years of fires
The eight fires police say Nolan admitted to setting had firefighters and investigators busy, and the people of Stowe on edge, for two years.
The worst of the blazes happened on March 30, 2019, when the Stoware Commons fire was torched, destroying that building, which has since been rebuilt.
That same night, the Helen Day building was lit on fire, less than a year after a burst sprinkler flooded the Stowe Free Library, located on the ground floor, and the building was still under construction. Stowe fire chief Kyle Walker was able to put that fire out with a fire extinguisher before it spread.
The dual arson attempt took an emotional toll on Rothammer and Stowe Cable staff, he said, his voice choking up a bit.
“We thought we were over this,” he said. “Short of needing a new paint job, we were back to functioning.”
The Aug. 30 fire didn’t directly affect Stowe Cable operations, but it had a cumulative effect on slowing everything down, from rolling out new fiber to having to buy the office next door and move in there temporarily. He said, despite this, the staff “didn’t miss a beat” and the company met all of its 2020 goals.
“The staff is very close,” he said. “Our family here is just as important to us as our families at home.”