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UPDATE: Hesslink's body identified; blaze termed suspicious

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NEW HAVEN — A body recovered from a fire that destroyed the Dog Team Tavern, an Addison County landmark, early Friday morning, was that of Christopher Hesslink, fire officials confirmed Monday.

On Friday officials pulled the remains of Hesslink from the burned building, but did not release the identification of until Monday.

State Police have not determined the cause of the blaze, which they said they are investigating as a suspicious incident.

The damage caused by an unknown explosion inside the building and the sheer intensity of the blaze strongly suggest suspicious causes fire officials have told the Associated Press.

As firefighters pulled down the charred remains of the tavern, the Vermont State Police Arson Investigation Unit was on scene combing through debris for clues to the fire’s origin.

Officials said they hadn’t determined the cause of the fire but continue to investigate throughout the weekend. Investigators had been inside the burned out remains of the tavern but hadn’t come to any conclusions. They said they wanted to bring in dogs to sniff for accelerants or human remains but that it was too dangerous for the dogs.

Neighbors were awoken by an explosion in the building and called 911 at about 2:25 a.m. Friday. Dykstra said the fire was surely already blazing at that point and the explosion was likely caused by a backdraft or a propane leak.

Ten area fire departments responded to the alarm, providing about 70 firefighters and upwards of two dozen fire trucks to battle the blaze. Dykstra said the fire was so intense that there was no way firefighters could get inside the building, but instead dumped water on the conflagration from the outside.

“We used a lot of external attack,� Dykstra said. “We had about 70 people, and that still wasn’t enough.�

Firefighters finally got the fire under control by about 6 a.m., when they managed to get inside to douse the remaining flames. The New Haven fire chief said it was the largest fire he had been to in years.

Authorities on Friday morning were not sure if anyone was inside the building when it burned down but had not ruled out the possibility.

Hesslink was in the news recently when the 42-year-old restaurateur pleaded no contest to a charge of “prohibited acts.� Hesslink had been facing a trial on a felony charge of sexual assault stemming from an incident with a 16-year-old Dog Team hostess, when he pled to the lesser charge in a July 21 Addison County District Court hearing.

Hesslink was sentenced to pay a $100 fine and make a $1,000 contribution to an organization that deals with sexual assault, but he did not face probation or jail time.

Police said they hadn’t made any connection between Hesslink’s criminal record and the fire but said that was part of their investigation.

“We’re looking into that,� said Vermont State Police Det. Lt. Tim Oliver on Friday afternoon. “We’ve got to take all the evidence we have and go from there. Right now it’s too early for us to make a determination.�

Middlebury attorney Robert Keiner, who represented Hesslink in the court case, said on Friday that he had worked closely with Hesslink for more than a year and they had become friends. As news of the fire spread on Friday he rushed to the scene on Dog Team Road to get more information.

“Everybody is kind of holding their breath right now,� Keiner said on Friday morning. “I know he’s a fisherman and I know he goes on fishing trips and I hope he’s on one right now.�

John Fuller, a friend of Hesslink’s for more than 20 years, was at the scene on Friday to see what he could find out about the fire and his friend. Fuller said Hesslink has donated time and money to many area causes, such as Field Days.

“That’s why everybody likes him,� Fuller said. “This is a shock.�

HISTORIC TAVERN

The Dog Team Tavern was built during the 1920s at the request of Lady Anne Grenfell, wife of the famous doctor and missionary, Sir Wilfred Grenfell. The Grenfells originally operated the home as a teahouse, but also used the building as a venue from which to sell handicrafts from Labrador and Newfoundland, Canada, to raise money for the needy people in that region.

Eben and Catherine Joy acquired the property in 1946, and quickly transformed it into a country inn and restaurant. It earned a wide following for its hearty food — including its popular sticky buns and spinning relish wheel — and the many antique furnishings and knickknacks that adorned the building. Among those antiques were some remnants from the Grenfells’ collection, including hand-hooked mats depicting native life in the far North, such as dog teams, icebergs and polar bears.

During its history, the Dog Team Tavern served dinner to such luminaries as poet Robert Frost, actor Charles Lawton and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Andy Golbert, now of Essex, acquired the Dog Team Tavern from the Joys in 1978. One of Golbert’s Middlebury friends informed him of the fire early Friday morning.

“It was like getting a kick in the stomach,� said Golbert, who sold the property to Chris Hesslink and Robert Mahoney in 1987. “It’s still a part of me.�

Golbert noted that community has not only lost an important business, but a significant historic structure, as well. The Dog Team Tavern was a lynchpin of Brooksville, a storied hamlet off Dog Team Road in New Haven.

He also lamented the loss of all the antiques and folk art within the tavern building.

“It’s too bad that all of that is now up in smoke,� Golbert said.

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