LOCKPORT - A 14-year-old boy pleaded guilty Thursday to third-degree burglary and fourth-degree arson for his role in a massive Lockport fire last August that killed his friend.
The defendant showed no emotion as he entered the plea in Niagara County Family Court, answering a few yes-or-no questions. He then left the courtroom before the sentencing portion of the trial, during which video clips taken from his cellphone were shown.
The clips showed the boy who died in the fire, 14-year-old Joseph Phillips, making his way through brush outside the HTI Recycling plant and climbing a ladder leading to the roof of a vacant former office building where the fire began.
Five of the clips were only a few seconds long, but one that lasted nearly five minutes showed papers and boxes on the floor on fire, and someone holding a burning piece of paper in his hand. No faces were shown in that video.
A voice was heard saying, "This is hot."
Another voice said, "Dude, oh my God, this is amazing."
A few minutes later, a voice was heard saying, "That thing is completely on fire. This thing lights fast."
In the final video clip, the voices of the defendant and another friend could be heard as the billowing smoke and flames from the HTI plant filled the screen.
One voice said, "We have to tell them. The building's falling!"
The other voice replied, "Are you kidding me?"
The videos led to the plea, Assistant County Attorney John S. Sansone said.
"Knowing the video was going to be played and show his involvement, that did it," Sansone said.
The friend on the last video told police that the defendant came to his house after fleeing the burning building, leaving Phillips inside, and he spent a few minutes deleting videos from his phone. He did not succeed in erasing them all. Some were attached to text messages to the defendant's girlfriend.
County Attorney Claude A. Joerg said in court that Phillips' parents, especially Joe's adoptive father, Mark Phillips, agreed to the plea deal as long as the videos were played.
"All along, it's been stated his son was the pyromaniac, the bad person," Joerg said. "He wants the role of his son to be placed in proper perspective."
"The charges my client is pleading to, he's pleading to as an accomplice," defense attorney A. Angelo DiMillo said. "I'm certainly not here to debate the role of these two boys."
DiMillo told reporters that his client would not have pleaded guilty to third-degree arson, the most severe count in the indictment. It accused him of intending to set a fire with the intention of damaging the building.
"I don't think the boys intended to damage the building," DiMillo said. "That happened, but it wasn't intentional."
The arson count used for the plea required the boy to admit being an accomplice to intentionally starting a fire and recklessly causing damage to the building.
The original list of 10 charges also included criminally negligent homicide, a count that DiMillo and colleague Brian J. Hutchison strongly denied on behalf of their client.
"He was willing to plead to arson. It's the same level of severity as far as punishment goes," Joerg said.
Family Court Judge John F. Batt can impose no more than 18 months in a state youth detention facility. The law also limits restitution for the fire damage to $1,500, even though the damage estimate is $13 million.
In addition to showing Batt the cellphone videos, the defense showed an 80-minute Lockport police interview with the defendant and his parents. Only the first half was shown Thursday. Batt will finish watching it Friday.
The boy told Detective Lt. Todd A. Chenez that Joe Phillips said he wanted to go back to the office building, where he had been before.
"He had a lighter and he wanted to set stuff on fire," the boy said.
The charges against the defendant, who was 13 at the time of the fire, are not among those for which a juvenile defendant may be prosecuted as an adult.
Batt said he won't sentence the boy for a few weeks, until he's reviewed the evidence and received a written pre-sentencing report from a probation officer.
According to prior testimony and attorney statements, the defendant told police that a small fire was started with some discarded papers and extinguished. But a second fire was started soon after, and that got out of control and resulted in the massive blaze at the tire recycling plant.
A 19-second voice mail from Phillips to the defendant, which was played in court Feb. 23, began with Phillips shouting obscenities about his desperate situation before he added, "I'm (expletive) gonna die!"
Then he panted three times and in a much lower voice said, "I love you, man."
That was followed by a few unintelligible words and the phrase "die this way."
That call was made at 6:34 p.m. Aug. 10. Testimony about the phone log indicated that the defendant called Phillips back seven times between 6:35 and 7:06. The first call lasted one minute and 54 seconds, but none of the subsequent calls lasted longer than nine seconds, perhaps indicating that they were not answered and went to Phillips' voice mail before the caller hung up without leaving a message.