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Couple charged in July explosion; Blast destroyed house on Military

A natural gas explosion that destroyed a home and caused a number of injuries in July on the busy Military Road business strip was the result of thieves detaching a gas pipe while trying to steal copper from the basement of an unoccupied house.

Now a man and woman believed to be responsible have been arrested and face felony charges, the Niagara County sheriff said at a news conference Monday.

Eric Waterstram, 37, of Niagara Falls, and Crystal D. Knepp, 28, of Newfane, were each charged with felony second-degree burglary, felony second-degree criminal mischief and petit larceny.

They were arraigned in Town of Niagara Court. Waterstram is being held on $25,000 bail, and Knepp is being held on $10,000 bail. They are due back in court Nov. 3.

Sheriff James R. Voutour said the two, who are dating, have a history of felony arrests for copper theft. He said in this case they caused nearly $150,000 in damage and got about $100 for the scrapped metal.

A criminal investigation began after the July 20 explosion in the basement at 3225 Military Road.

Town of Niagara Police Chief James Suitor said at the time that it was important to excavate the basement to find the source of the explosion and why there was such extensive damage.

The explosion at the single-family home shot debris onto the street and damaged several nearby homes, businesses and motor vehicles. One of the homes was knocked off its foundation, Suitor said.

Voutour said investigators focused on Waterstram and Knepp after receiving a tip. Niagara County Sheriff's Investigators Daniel Brown and Charles Baker then conducted months of surveillance and interviews.

"It's alleged that some time in the late evening or early morning [Waterstram and Knepp] entered that house with the intent to go into the basement and steal the copper tubing so they could scrap it," Voutour said. "During the commission of that burglary and larceny of taking the pipes from the basement, they detached a gas pipe and broke it."

He said Niagara County fire investigators found that the vacant house filled up with gas and, after an 18-hour period, the gas ignited and blew the house up.

"This was a pretty devastating event. As soon as the house exploded, it was completely gone," Voutour said. "It was strewn all over the road, across the street and into buildings next door."

"This could have been devastating," Suitor said. "Only by the grace of God, nobody was killed by this intentional act."

Betty's Bridal was knocked off its foundation but is now being rebuilt. Owner Betty Cancilla, who lived behind the store, was not home at the time of the explosion, but she suffered a heart attack when she saw the damage. A nearby hair salon, which was damaged by fire in the explosion, has reopened.

Suitor said a motorist who was injured as he drove by continues to seek medical treatment for a concussion.

The destroyed house was owned by Joseph Nicosia Sr. His son, Joseph Nicosia Jr., had recently moved back to the area from Ohio and planned to move into the 1,050-square-foot structure by the end of the summer, said Alysa Talarico, the listing agent from Coldwell Banker Talarico Real Estate of Lewiston.

Voutour said copper thefts have become a problem in the city, where there is a large supply of abandoned houses. But the thefts also are spiking in Niagara County and across the country.

Brown said that in this case authorities discussed arson charges with the District Attorney's Office, but they needed to show intent to cause the fire.

"In this case they only acted recklessly," Brown said.

Voutour said that the suspects also received unreported income while obtaining welfare, and officials will be consulting with Niagara County Social Services for possible additional charges.

email: nfischer@buffnews.com