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New London — Building contractor Bruce P. “Bruno” Hayn Sr., who led two volunteer efforts to rebuild homes destroyed by fire, was sentenced Thursday to eight years in prison, suspended after four months served, for the 2011 torching of his Norwich business.
The sentence includes four years of probation and 300 hours of community service.
Hayn, 57, of Colchester was the owner and operator of Shur Fire, a company that sold wood stoves and products and pellet fuels located at 340 W. Thames St. in Norwich.
Judge Hillary B. Strackbein said Hayn’s sentencing for third-degree arson was one of the hardest in her career; she commented that she had never seen so many letters in support for a defendant. The court received 45 letters in support, according to Hayn’s attorney, Patrick Tomasiewicz.
Strackbein said the suspension after four months was as generous as she could allow while still fulfilling her obligation as a judge to deter business owners and others from committing similar crimes. She said that the crime actually constituted arson in the first degree.
“All of the work you’ve done in the community is just outstanding,” Strackbein said to Hayn of his contributions to the community, which Tomasiewicz and friends and family who spoke during the sentencing outlined. “But what I can’t ignore is the planned arson.”
Prosecutor Lawrence J. Tytla has said that Hayn put a wad of paper towels into an electrical panel to ignite the fire that caused extensive damage to the two-story, 9,000-square-foot building.
Investigators recovered surveillance video that showed Hayn in the ground-floor warehouse where the fire originated with paper towels in hand and showed him leaving the building with smoke and particulates in the air, according to Tytla.
Hayn plead no contest to third-degree arson in April, accepting an offer from the state also involving a sentence of eight years in prison, but suspended after two years served.
In his argument for suspension after two years, Tytla said that Hayn differed from “knuckleheads” who might set a fire by accident or while drunk, in that he had a lot of “sophistication and understanding” and knew what he was doing.
“This was an intentionally set fire,” said Tytla.
He described how in camera footage of the fire, Hayn is “seen in the building with smoke and particulates in the air,” before closing the doors and leaving the scene. Five fire departments were called to the fire, according to Strackbein.
Tomasiewicz structured his argument around “the good book,” which he defined as a metaphorical ledger of good deeds to be weighed against Hayn’s crime. He brought in numerous character witnesses, including Colchester Fire Marshal Reed Gustafson, who spoke in his capacity as a private citizen, and Carol Girard of Voluntown.
As president of Home Designs by Bruno, Hayn led a team in rebuilding Girard’s home, which had burned down, during an “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” project in December 2008. Girard’s husband and oldest child drowned in the summer of 2008, roughly a year after their home burned down.
Girard said that Hayn “built me a castle with a drawbridge.” She said that he continued to visit her in the months after the show was filmed to check on her and the home and advise her on home insurance and other matters. She said that Hayn stayed in touch with her family and at times provided her four children with career advice.
“He was truly a gift to my family when I needed it most,” she said.
Hayn’s wife, Patricia, told the judge tearfully, “If I stood here all day, I could not explain how this happened.” She said that preceding the fire, Hayn had damaged both his knees in an accident at a building site. She described life since the fire as “a nightmare.”
Patricia told the judge that Hayn and his family were committed to making restitution to those who lost assets in the fire, which Tomasiewicz said include the owners of the building that housed Shur Fire and Travelers Insurance.
“If he is incarcerated, that will make it all the more difficult and impossible,” Patricia said.
Tomasiewicz listed some of the more prominent individuals who had submitted letters on Hayn’s behalf. He said that in addition to Gustafson, retired police officer Robert Kanaitis, who has served in Hartford and New London, and former First Selectman of Colchester Jenny Contois has written to the court.
He said that the real punishment for Hayn was the tarnishing of his reputation due to the fire, which he said would be an albatross for his client. He said his client had gone from living in a large home that he built himself to living in an apartment and worrying about making rent.
Hayn was a longtime member of Colchester’s Board of Finance. In addition to his work with “Extreme Makeover,” he was part of a volunteer effort to rebuild a family’s house in Griswold that had been destroyed by fire.
In 2009, Hayn was presented the Distinguished Service Award by the Builders Association of Eastern Connecticut as well as the Toastmasters International Communication and Leadership award.
“He’s lost everything — his reputation. He’s lost his business. He’s a pariah,” Tomasiewicz said.