2017 Salem fire 

Salem firefighters assess the damage of the Ideal Transmission building in Salem where a large fire broke out Sept. 6, 2017. It’s owner, Robert Cole, was sentenced to four years in prison for arson on Wednesday.

SALEM — The former owner of a North Salem transmission shop, convicted in June of burning the building down, was sentenced to four years in state prison on Wednesday.

Robert Cole, 54, of Salisbury, the former owner of Ideal Transmission at 9-11 Franklin St., bowed his head as Salem Superior Court Judge Kathleen McCarthy Neyman announced the sentence.

The Sept. 6, 2017, fire took hours for firefighters to put out.

The motive: Cole was $29,000 in arrears to his landlord, Goldberg Properties, and about to be evicted. His insurance was about to lapse. Prosecutor Anne Marie Gochis convinced jurors that Cole set the fire in a plan to collect on that insurance policy.

He was found guilty of burning a building and burning a building with intent to defraud an insurer.

“It was a significant fire,” Neyman told Cole, who had been hoping for a 2½ year jail term.

Not only did firefighters have to be pulled out of the Franklin Street building before the roof and second floor collapsed, but the building’s location, in a densely-packed neighborhood of homes and businesses, created a risk to others.

The fire “put many citizens at risk of serious physical injury,” Neyman said.

Neyman’s remarks echoed those of the prosecutor, Gochis, who had requested a five- to seven-year state prison term. She too raised concerns about the risk to firefighters and neighbors, and suggested the motive was purely financial.

Cole’s lawyer, Scott Gleason, repeatedly stressed that Cole ended up gaining nothing from the fire — he never went ahead with an insurance claim and the fire did not spread to other properties. “That’s pure speculation,” Gleason told the judge.

He said the value of the business was in his client’s automotive repair skills and not in the equipment that burned — though he also acknowledged some of the most valuable items had been moved to a different location before the fire.

“Is it a terrible act? Sure,” Gleason told the judge. “He’s a lousy guy. So what? Because he’s a lousy guy he’s going to get a harsher sentence? I hope not. We’ve got a lot of lousy guys in the world.”

He pointed to sentencing guidelines that put Cole in a category of a three- to 30-month jail term based on the charges and his record.

But Neyman had opened the hearing by telling Gleason she considered the sentencing guidelines to be a bit light.

She also noted that a prior jail term in an unrelated case in 2017 did not deter Cole from setting the fire.

After Cole, who has been in custody since the verdict, serves the four-year prison term for burning the building, he’ll spend two years on supervised probation for the attempted insurance fraud.

Among the conditions will be a mental health evaluation and treatment, as well as an order that he stay away from the location of the fire and the owners of the property.

The sentencing had been scheduled for several different dates this summer but was eventually moved to Wednesday.

While the trial took place in Lawrence Superior Court, the sentencing was moved to Salem, where the judge is assigned.

Gleason, meanwhile, is still hoping to convince Neyman to set aside the jury’s June 27 verdict. Neyman gave Gochis two weeks to file a response and may schedule a hearing on the request sometime after that.

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

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