SALEM — A homeless Salem man with a record of arson convictions has been charged with vandalism after allegedly scrawling what police believe may be threats to burn down a local landlord’s buildings.
Despite William Lewis’ history, which also includes convictions for assault, malicious destruction and larceny, a Salem District Court judge yesterday rejected a police prosecutor’s request for bail.
Lewis, 44, was identified as a suspect following a monthlong investigation by the Salem Police Department’s Community Impact Unit, which was triggered by the discovery of graffiti on the outside of 116 Lafayette St., a rooming house, last month, police Lt. Conrad Prosniewski said.
The graffiti included the words “Burn 1914 — 2013,” which Sgt. Dennis King concluded was a reference to the devastating Salem fire of 1914, which swept through a roughly 2-square-mile section of Salem.
Similar writings were discovered on the Museum Place Mall, along with a message that said “Billy and Jeannie Forever.”
Lewis had been charged with leaving similar graffiti in the past, said Prosniewski, the police prosecutor for the department.
King suspected Lewis, whose wife is named Jeannie, Prosniewski told Judge Sabita Singh. The couple had been asked to stay away from the rooming house because of prior problems there.
Defense lawyer Leslie Salter protested the request for $5,000 bail, calling the case “a great leap.”
“What you have here is nothing, nothing that connects Mr. Lewis to the graffiti,” Salter said.
She said there may be a lot of disadvantaged and disgruntled people associated with a rooming house like the Lafayette Hotel.
That remark prompted Prosniewski to bring up the deadly 1984 Elliott Chambers rooming house fire in Beverly, which killed 15 people. Elliott Chambers was also home to many disadvantaged people.
And, Prosniewski told the judge, the messages “scared the hell out of” the owner of the Salem rooming house, who has other residential properties.
Salter, meanwhile, told the judge that Lewis, who has been homeless and most recently held on bail on charges that he stole a metal ladder from a homeowner’s yard last month, is in the process of getting back on his feet. He and his girlfriend are trying to regain custody of their child, and the Department of Children and Families recently helped them find a new apartment in Salem to accomplish that goal.
Singh ordered Lewis to stay away from the Lafayette Hotel and all of the other properties owned by that landlord and to report to a probation officer once a week.
He’s due back in court May 22.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.