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Accused North Tonawanda arsonist waives right to felony hearing

NORTH TONAWANDA — Christopher M. Syracuse was back in North Tonawanda City Court on Thursday afternoon — this time with an attorney at his side and the words “NIAGARA COUNTY JAIL” emblazoned in bold black letters on the blue jumpsuit that covered his 5-foot-8, 125-pound frame.

In a 50-second appearance before City Judge William R. Lewis, the accused arsonist waived his right to a felony hearing. Syracuse’s case will now be sent to a grand jury in Niagara County Court.

Syracuse, 26, was arraigned Wednesday on 11 felony and four misdemeanor charges in connection with an arson spree in the Tonawandas over a 2½-hour span late Monday and early Tuesday. He confessed to police Tuesday night, authorities said.

Syracuse’s attorney, James A. Rizzo of the Niagara County Public Defender’s Office, said waiving the felony hearing was in his client’s best interest.

“In talking to him and also talking with some other lawyers in the office, I think the course we’re choosing to take is to get it up to Lockport, prepare the defense, talk to him about some things that may need to be done to prepare this thing for trial,” Rizzo said. “I don’t know that a felony hearing in this particular case would present anything new that we don’t already know.

“Frankly, we just need to get him alone with us and to talk about it a little more in depth and get it out of North Tonawanda – get it out of the public light a little bit so that we have a chance to talk to him in a quieter atmosphere and prepare a defense for county court.”

Syracuse remains held without bail.

Also Thursday, City of Tonawanda police announced that Syracuse will be arraigned on three felony and two misdemeanor charges at 9:30 a.m. next Thursday in City of Tonawanda Court. He was charged with third-degree arson, two counts of fourth-degree arson and two counts of reckless endangerment in connection with a fire on Enterprise Avenue – the last of the eight fires he is accused of setting. The targeted homes on Enterprise were less than half a mile from Syracuse’s apartment on Hinds Street.

Five vehicles, eight houses, one Dumpster and three garbage totes were set on fire. Many of the blazes started in vehicles and spread to nearby homes.

Police believe Syracuse chose his targets at random.

Rizzo declined to comment on whether Syracuse revealed a motive.

“I’m not going to say what I know from talking to him,” he said.

Rizzo also was asked what effect Syracuse’s confession would have on the case.

“I think there’s more to a case than whether he committed an act,” Rizzo said. “I imagine in all likelihood the District Attorney’s Office will have this before the grand jury, and I expect them to probably vote an indictment. Our primary defense will be saved for county court and for a trial.”