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Court hears voicemail of boy who died in Lockport fire: 'I'm gonna die!'

LOCKPORT – Sounding out of breath, 14-year-old Joe Phillips shouted into his cellphone, "I'm gonna die!"

Seconds later, trapped in a burning building, he signed off, saying, "I love you, man."

But that may not have been the last anyone heard of Phillips before his death Aug. 10 in the massive HTI Recycling fire in Lockport.

Testimony from Lockport Police Detective Warren Hale Thursday indicated that a 14-year-old boy on trial in connection with Phillips' death and the fire called Phillips back as many as seven times, and the first of those calls lasted 1 minute and 54 seconds.

There was no information available on whether the boys spoke during that connection, which came seconds after Phillips' desperate message landed in the defendant's voicemail.

There also appear to be several videos found on the defendant's phone in addition to the voicemail, and Niagara County Family Court Judge John F. Batt suspended the trial to give the defense a chance to make a case that they should be ruled inadmissible as evidence. The trial already was going to be halted at the end of the day until March 16, and that's when the video issue will be settled.

Joe Phillips

After the voicemail and the lengthy return call, six other calls were attempted by the defendant, but none of the connections lasted longer than eight seconds, according to a call log police extracted from the defendant's phone the night of the largest fire in Lockport history.

Ann Phillips, the dead boy's mother, maintained her composure as her son's loud, distorted voice boomed through speakers in the courtroom. But she began to sob as Hale recited the list of calls the defendant made back to her son.

Meanwhile, the defendant appeared to be doodling on a legal pad, on which both he and his father, seated next to him, appeared to be writing.

"I'm (expletive)! I'm (expletive)!" Phillips yelled. "I'm gonna die!" Then, right at the end of the 20-second voicemail, he said, "I love you, man." The audio was looped so it played twice in a row in the courtroom.

[Related: Day 1 at the trial]

The defendant, who was 13 at the time of the fire, told police that Phillips brought a lighter with him as the two boys entered an abandoned former office building on the Stevens Street side of the HTI property.

According to defense attorney A. Angelo DiMillo, the boys first set a small fire in discarded papers on the second floor of the building and put it out with the contents of a Gatorade bottle they found. A second fire, started on the first floor, got out of control and led to a gigantic conflagration that burned for four days and forced dozens of nearby residents from their homes.

The voicemail was turned over to police that night, and Hale said police also found seven videos on the phone which apparently have relevance to the fire.

DiMillo mentioned one briefly in his opening statement Wednesday, mentioning a cellphone video that showed the boys in the building and papers burning on the floor.

As the prosecution sought to play those videos in court Thursday, DiMillo and co-counsel Brian J. Hutchison demanded that they be suppressed because their existence wasn't disclosed to the defense until the day before the trial.

"I never knew up until last Thursday that these videos existed," Assistant County Attorney John S. Sansone said. He said the contents of the phone had been loaded onto a thumb drive months ago, which he promptly gave to the defense.

Sansone said the videos didn't become readily visible until a program was applied that changed the times of the phone log from Greenwich Mean Time to Eastern Daytime Time for ease of reference.

Sansone said the defense effort to suppress the videos has to fail because DiMillo missed a deadline to file challenges to the evidence. DiMillo said he would have challenged the evidence if he had known about it.

Batt scheduled a hearing on whether the videos should be admitted as evidence for 10 a.m. March 16, the day the trial is scheduled to continue.

DiMillo said he expects the trial to conclude on March 17, but if not, further dates have been set aside: March 20 and April 4.

Worst feared after a charred body is found in debris of Lockport fire

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