Judge denies bail for Caribou woman accused of setting fatal fire

3 months ago

CARIBOU, Maine – A judge denied bail Friday for a Caribou woman accused of starting a fatal fire in January.

Susan Kochanowski, 35, was arrested in March and faces felony charges for murder and arson related to a fire that destroyed an apartment building at 7 Water St., displacing over a dozen residents and killing 30-year-old Jason Donahue.

Kochanowski and her attorneys Adam Swanson and Ben Everett appeared at Aroostook Superior Court in Houlton for a Harnish bail hearing Wednesday. Swanson and Everett attempted to secure bail for Kochanowski, who has been held at Aroostook County Jail in Houlton since her arrest.

Justice Stephen Nelson dismissed the court after nearly 30 minutes of arguments Wednesday. He released his decision two days later.

“Given the defendant’s [Kochanowski’] behavior and conduct, the court finds that there is clear and convincing evidence that there is a substantial risk that the defendant will pose a danger to another or to the community,” Nelson wrote.

On Wednesday, Maine Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea presented evidence from a Maine State Police investigation that she said makes clear that Kochanowski knowingly and intentionally caused the fire that killed Donahue.

Donahue’s body was discovered in the rubble of the Water Street apartment building two days after the fire, according to Maine State Police Detective Hunter Cotton. 

In April, court records revealed that Kochanowski was hospitalized at Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent following the fire. Kochanowski was later transferred to Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor, where she underwent a court-ordered psychiatric evaluation.

Kochanowki told investigators that she started the fire in a trash can inside the apartment where she and Donahue lived, according to Cotton’s report. 

Kochanowski knew that others lived in the apartment building, including her former husband and 6-year-old daughter, Zainea said.

“This defendant does not have a prior criminal record or failure to appear in court, but based on the nature of the crime and allegations, the state believes she could be a danger to others,” Zainea said.

Zainea suggested that the court set bail at $200,000, if Nelson chose to grant bail to Kochanowski.

In a Harnish hearing, the state can get a judicial finding of probable cause that the defendant has committed a capital offense, and the defendant can also rebut the case. Knowingly or intentionally causing murder is considered a capital offense. 

Kochanowski is also charged with depraved indifference in the murder of Donahue, which is not a capital offense and not eligible for bail.

Everett argued the state investigators have not clearly proven that Kochanowski knowingly or intentionally caused Donahue’s death.

For instance, Kochanowski initially told investigators that she started the trash can fire and apologized for doing so, Everett said. But later, she denied starting the fire.

Kochanowski allegedly made those statements after jumping into the river below the apartment building to escape the fire, and then in the hospital while being treated for hypothermia and shock. That means she was under extreme duress and her statements are not reliable evidence, Everett said.

According to state police, firefighters reported seeing smoke rise from the apartment building but only believed it could have started in Donahue and Kochanowski’s apartment, Everett noted.

“Based on Susan’s statements, which she made while medicated and suffering from hypothermia, there is no evidence suggesting that she started the fire in the first place,” Everett said. “Nor are there any witnesses to Susan starting the fire.”

Kochanowski has been deemed disabled and does not work due to various mental health conditions, including Bipolar disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, ADHD and anxiety disorder, Swanson said. She also suffers from fibromyalgia, a medical disorder that can cause chronic muscle pain, tenderness and fatigue.

Though Kochanowski has been receiving mental and medical health services in jail, she could meet with a team of professionals more regularly if she made bail, Swanson said. 

Kochanowski would have agreed to not use and be subject to random searches for alcohol, drugs and weapons, take prescribed medications and live at a court-appointed address. If on house arrest, she would have left home only with a court-appointed guardian for health appointments, Swanson noted.

“We recommend $30,000 cash, in the form of a loan that Susan would be obligated to pay back, as a way to hold her feet to the fire,” Swanson said. “She would not have any contact with any known parties [who lived in the apartment].”