Fire strikes close to home on Munjoy Hill

The alleged arson that damaged Colucci’s Hilltop Market on Munjoy Hill last weekend and gutted three apartments above the store is disturbing to me on two levels.

For one thing, it’s unsettling to imagine the scene that preceded it. Store owner Dickie Colucci said he awoke in the dead of the night to find a stranger standing in his bedroom. With a sense of composure and kindness that’s simply amazing, Colucci offered the young man a ride home and a glass of water, according to an account by Forecaster reporter William Hall.

“But he wouldn’t talk to me and didn’t speak English well,” Colucci told the paper. “He didn’t want to leave.” Colucci managed to get the man into the hallway, then locked his apartment door and called police. The cops arrived in seconds to find the suspect, Elroy Montes-Lopez, attempting to exit the building. Then Colucci and the cops discovered a fire had been set in a hallway closet.

The blaze spread so quickly that despite the fact there’s a fire station just steps away across Congress Street, the top two floors of the building were destroyed and the store below so damaged that it may be months before it reopens.

The other thing that freaks me out about this: Montes-Lopez is my next-door neighbor.

What the heck is happening on Morning Street? A few months ago I discovered that two neighbors of mine were on the Kennebunk Zumba/prostitution list. “How many other guys on my block will be implicated in this thing?” I wondered aloud in this column‘s space. “Am I surrounded by leches?”

Now I wish Montes-Lopez had been implicated in something as harmless as paying for sex. The thought of him hiring a whore in York County is far less disturbing than the thought of him showing up in my bedroom at 3:30 a.m. Though I like to think I’d have the presence of mind and compassion Colucci displayed in that situation, it’s far more likely I’d have blood on my hands.

Montes-Lopez has been charged with arson and criminal trespass, but I think prosecutors should add attempted murder to the list. If you start a fire in a residential building while the residents are fast asleep, you are essentially attempting to kill them. No people were injured during the March 9 fire, but several pets perished, and nine people lost pretty much everything they had — including, most importantly, their home.

I don’t know Montes-Lopez. I vaguely recall seeing someone who fits his description walking on and off the front porch next door a few times, but our paths never crossed long enough to allow a conversation to germinate. My girlfriend recalls seeing him in the company of a young woman with a baby, but it’s not clear what his relationship to the woman and child may be. We don’t think they’ve lived there very long.

It’s unfortunate that this neighbor was a stranger to me. If Montes-Lopez were better known in the neighborhood, more a part of it, it’s less likely he’d be involved in this mess.

Colucci’s is the heart and soul of Munjoy Hill. It’s a landmark, the most prominent reminder of the neighborhood’s working-class roots. When I moved to the Hill 15 years ago, the cheap pizza and sandwiches at Colucci’s were an important source of sustenance. Years later, I discovered the delicious Italian sausages made there and available in frozen packages. Colucci’s took top honors at the first Smokin’ Sausage Showdown barbeque competition The Bollard held in 2007. But when Colucci mounted a sign behind the counter quoting the accolades his sausages earned in that story, I was the one who felt honored.

The employees at this corner store are genuinely friendly. At Colucci’s, I’ve never gotten the kind of dead-eyed, chain-convenience-store service one encounters at, say, the 7-Eleven at the bottom of the Hill. You’re more likely to find someone like Diane Russell behind the register — a cashier who also represents the neighborhood in the Maine Legislature. Former state Rep. Michael Quint usually rings up the enormous blueberry muffins, baked in-house, that I’m addicted to.

Colucci’s has only been closed for a few days, but it’s already deeply missed. I’ve had to remind myself it’s not open at least a half dozen times this week when it’s occurred to me that I need something. Here’s hoping the three families displaced by the fire get back on their feet, that the store’s employees weather these weeks without work and that Colucci’s opens again soon. Sausage season is fast approaching.


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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.