March 08, 2012OSSIPEE —Former West Ossipee Fire Chief Bradley Eldridge has been charged with a Christmas Eve barn fire in Porter, Maine.
Eldridge, 51, was indicted in Oxford County Superior Court in Maine on Feb. 16 and charged with arson. The indictment alleges that on Dec. 24, 2011 Eldridge started a fire at the property of William A. Day, Jr. in Porter, Maine, with the "intent to damage or destroy property." According to officials at the Maine State Fire Marshal's Office, Eldridge is accused of setting fire inside a barn on Porterfield Road that was quickly extinguished by the owner's son and a neighbor, keeping the damage to a minimum and preventing the livestock kept in the barn from being harmed. Authorities would not disclose the relationship, if any, between Eldridge and Day or divulge a possible motive for the fire. According to sources, Eldridge has family that lives near Day and Eldridge has known Day for many years.
Arson is a Class A felony, making it punishable in Maine by up to 30 years in jail and a $50,000 fine. Eldridge is set to appear in court in South Paris, Maine on April 13 at 8:30 a.m. to be formally charged and for bail conditions to be set.
The indictment is the latest in a series of events that have been the downward spiral of a man once heralded as a great teacher in the fire service and as a man who has given so much of himself to the members of his department and to the community.
Eldridge joined the West Ossipee fire department in the 1970s and was appointed as volunteer chief in 1988. That position became full-time paid with benefits nearly 20 years later and Eldridge held the job until March 28, 2011. That night fire precinct commissioners held a non-public session and voted to fire Eldridge "with cause." Prior to that meeting, he had been placed on administrative leave with pay.
It was apparent that Eldridge was distancing himself from the fire service in January 2011, when in the days before the annual precinct meeting he could not be found. He did attend the daylong Saturday meeting. At least 70 voters showed up to that meeting, most from the private aviation community of Windsock, where Eldridge and his family also lived, demanding a change in the management of the precinct and voted to heavily slash the commissioner's proposed budget. There were more voters at that meeting than had attended all of the precinct annual meetings combined in all the years Eldridge was chief. During the annual meeting, the commissioners were virtually silent as voters fired one question after another at the head table. Eldridge, known in the past for his outspoken nature, also said little as the meeting wore on, saying later that engaging in the "witch hunt" would have been pointless.
Eldridge would become further withdrawn and infrequently attended commissioner's meetings despite being specifically asked to attend by his bosses. Eventually the board voted to place Eldridge on leave with pay. They followed that up with firing him and appointed his longtime deputy, Carl Huddleston as acting chief. In January 2012, Huddleston was appointed fire chief.
Through the years, beyond his role of fire chief, Eldridge organized many efforts to help the members of the department, including shipping hundreds of pounds of care packages to a member who was stationed in Iraq, putting a new roof on a member's house, or splitting a winter's worth of firewood for another member and his family. Eldridge and his wife hosted the department's annual Christmas party at their home for many years, arranging every year for Santa to arrive and bring presents to all the firefighter's children.
With the loss of his job and Eldridge becoming more reclusive, only a couple of members continued to talk to him.
Eldridge joined neighboring Madison Fire Department in 2011 and said at the time that he was having "the time of his life" and was enjoying being a part of the team without having to be in charge. In the months following, that all-volunteer department would be plagued by an exhaustive string of suspicious fires. One of its members, John Colcord, 18, of Madison was indicted on 13 counts of arson for setting a string of fires in four towns over the summer. Colcord has since pled guilty and was sentenced to jail time and a hefty fine. Colcord was charged as solely responsible for setting those fires.
Prior to the fire Eldridge is accused of setting in Maine, he had moved out of his home in Windsock Village and was staying with family members. According to court documents, his wife filed for divorce and the divorce was granted by a judge in Ossipee Court on Dec. 6, 2011.
Next Thursday, March 15, Eldridge is set to appear in Ossipee District Court at 11:30 a.m. for a hearing on a driving while intoxicated charge. According to court documents, Eldridge was arrested by NH State Police Jan. 7 at 5:27 p.m. on Newman Drew Road in West Ossipee. He was released on personal recognizance bail and ordered to refrain from excessive use of alcohol and to not commit any crimes.