Seven months after a Maine gay couple returned to their Canaan home to find it torched and all seven of their pets dead, the men areleft wondering whether the arson was a hate crime.
After learning from police that their home had been destroyed by an arsonist, the couple now suspect they were targeted due to their sexual orientation, the Portland Press Herald reported Sunday. But local police say there is no evidence to suggest the fire was set as part of a bias-motivated crime.
Matthew Short (pictured), 30, was arrested in connection with the crime and indicted May 2 for arson, burglary, and aggravated cruelty to animals. Short reportedly told police that he broke into the couple's home because he thought they took $150 from his residence. The couple called his allegation "crazy," adding that they barely knew Short.
At least one affidavit filed in court following Short's arrest claims that Short told a friend that he "didn't like the guys based on their sexuality," the paper reported. If Short were prosecuted under hate-crime laws, he could face additional penalties.
Victim Brian Aldo Baldie, 63, can't see any other motivation for the crime. "Why would somebody break into somebody's house, take a little bit of money, a little bit of jewelry, and then set the house on fire with the animals in there?" he told the paper. "It doesn't make any sense. It would have to be a hate crime."
"After they told me somebody did it, I thought, 'Well, I wonder if it's because we're gay,'" his husband, Ron Pelletier, 71, told the paper.
But police do not consider it a bias-motivated crime. Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland told the Press Herald that investigators suspect the fire was set as revenge following the alleged dispute over $150.
McCausland told the paper there is no evidence the couple robbed Short, "but apparently it was the motivation here," the police spokesman said. "The sexual orientation of anyone involved has not been a focus of the investigation."
According to prosecutors, it's often difficult to prove a hate crime has taken place, even if prejudicial statements have been made. Maine Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin told the paper that ongoing disputes with neighbors who have previously had tense interactions or altercations can make proving a bias-motivated crime all but impossible.
Regardless of the motive, the fire changed Pelletier's outlook on life. "I want to let other people know not to be naive, because I didn't think that stuff went on," he told the paper.
"[The fire] kind of put me somewhere else. I don't trust anymore. I lock my doors. When I hear a dog barking, I think of the dogs [that died in the fire]. When I hear a fire engine, I think of that. It just puts stuff in my life that was never there before."
Only 17 states in the U.S. have specific hate-crimes laws that cover both sexual orientation and gender identity. Maine's law covers sexual orientation and gender but is not specific to gender identity. Federal hate-crimes law includes crimes based on gender identity.