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Knepp gets probation in explosion of empty Town of Niagara house

The man whose future home was obliterated in a natural gas explosion caused by copper thieves urged "long-term drug rehabilitation" Wednesday for a woman who took part in the burglary.

Joseph Nicosia Jr. of Niagara Falls said that until the burglars confessed, his family feared the blast might have had something to do with the 1992 shooting death of his brother.

Crystal D. Knepp, 28, of Ewings Road, Newfane, will undergo a substance abuse evaluation and must follow any recommendations, including inpatient treatment if necessary, as part of a five-year probation term imposed by Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Farkas.

Knepp also was sentenced to six months in jail, but she has already served three months. Assistant District Attorney Brian D. Seaman said Knepp will likely serve about 30 days more under the state's rules regarding release of inmates.

"I want to apologize to everybody," Knepp said, sobbing. "I'm glad no one seriously got hurt."

Knepp and Eric S. Waterstram, 38, of Cleveland Avenue, Niagara Falls, pleaded guilty in the July 20 explosion that wiped out the 1,050-square-foot home on Military Road in the Town of Niagara.

In court Wednesday, Knepp's attorney, Dominic Saraceno, pointed the blame at Waterstram.

He said after Knepp's fiance died in an auto accident about two years ago, Waterstram, the coach of her son's Little League baseball team, "hit on her."

"She assumed he was a good guy," Saraceno said. "Turns out he was nothing like she thought he was. He introduced her to drugs. She got hooked on drugs.

"Then he suggested going into houses and stealing copper would be a good way to get extra money. Had she not met Eric Waterstram, she would not be a drug addict today. She would not be a convicted felon."

Nicosia had been planning to move into the house and had already moved some furniture and appliances in when the explosion occurred.

Police said the burglary occurred July 19. After the copper gas pipes had been cut and removed, gas flowed into the house and led to the blast the next day.

Nicosia said his brother Michael, who was killed at age 29, had lived in the house, and his parents, the owners, refused to sell, even though the house was on a commercial strip.

As the case remained unsolved for three months, Nicosia said the family wondered if Michael's killer "was seeking revenge for our efforts to keep him in prison as long as possible."

Samuel A. Gentile, now 63, of Niagara Falls, was acquitted of murder but convicted of first-degree manslaughter; he was sentenced to 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison. He was paroled in October 2008, according to the state prison website.

Knepp was ordered to pay $96,500 in restitution. Seaman said Waterstram will face the same bill in addition to a maximum 10-year prison term when he returns to court June 14.