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Defense attorney says dead boy started Lockport fire

Joe Phillips, 14, of Lockport, died in the Aug. 10 fire at HTI Recycling in Lockport.

Joe Phillips, 14, of Lockport, died in the Aug. 10 fire at HTI Recycling in Lockport.

LOCKPORT - The attorney for a 14-year-old Lockport boy charged with setting the huge tire recycling plant fire that killed a friend Aug. 10 contended on Tuesday that the dead boy started the blaze, not his client.

Attorney A. Angelo DiMillo said his client gave police that version during an 80-minute recorded interview, and he said he will ask Niagara County Family Court Judge John F. Batt to dismiss the 10 charges, including criminal negligent homicide.

"My client did not start the fire. Period," DiMillo told reporters after a Family Court session where he attempted to have the media and public excluded. Batt refused to do so.

DiMillo said his client, who was 13 at the time, was with Joseph Phillips, 14, in the former office building on the Stevens Street side of the HTI Recycling property, where the gigantic fire started.

Asked if his client is saying Phillips started the fire, DiMillo said, "He is saying that."

Phillips was trapped inside the burning building, and his body was found in the ruins. It took a week to positively identify the remains.

Phillips used a cellphone to call DiMillo's client from inside the building, but the call went to voice mail. DiMillo said he's heard the recording.

"I don't want to comment much on that. It's a desperate plea for help," DiMillo said. "After (his client) heard it, he told his mother. She did the right thing and went to the police."

What his client told police in the subsequent interview, which resulted in the defendant being charged, is being disputed.

"They've charged some very serious felonies. If you listen to the interview, it doesn't match up with the charges," DiMillo asserted.

"I'm confident in the evidence in support of the counts in the petition," said Assistant County Attorney John S. Sansone, the county's Family Court prosecutor. But he said he legally isn't allowed to comment on that evidence.

The judge said he may rule on DiMillo's request to dismiss the charges after hearing arguments Dec. 22. If any of the 10-count petition stands after that, Batt may then schedule a fact finding hearing, the Family Court version of a trial.

DiMillo said he's hiring a court reporter to independently transcribe the police interview. "What I heard is different from what the county attorney heard," DiMillo said.

The fire spread to other buildings and did an estimated $5.25 million in damage, making it the biggest fire in Lockport history. The city spent more than $160,000 on expenses connected with the blaze, from overtime to repairs to waterlines that collapsed under the demand for water.

The fire, which wasn't extinguished until Aug. 13, forced scores of nearby residents out of their homes when police and fire officials ordered mandatory evacuations. No one other than Phillips was hurt.

At the start of Tuesday's court session, DiMillo sought to close the courtroom to the public. He said his client has been harassed on social media and has been kept out of Lockport schools this fall by his mother because of the harassment.

"He's had some mental health issues. He's been hospitalized as a result of that," DiMillo told the judge. He contended that incorrect information about the fire has spread through the community.

"Isn't it likely the presence of the press might be beneficial in in presenting truthful and accurate information, rather than distorted information?" Batt replied.

"Things that happen outside of court can be reported inaccurately or misinterpreted," DiMillo said. "The version that's out there in the community is inaccurate."

After court, when asked by reporters what inaccurate information is circulating, DiMillo made his claim of his client's innocence.

email: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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