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Teen who died in massive Lockport fire tried 'using his shirt to put it out'

LOCKPORT - The teenager who was in the Lockport building that was set on fire last summer told a friend that day, "Joe is gone," when he stepped outside the friend's house after escaping the flames.

He had left another boy, Joseph Phillips, inside, where he was trying to put the fire out.

The 14-year-old friend testified Friday in Niagara Family Court that the defendant, also 14, made the comment when he first saw the giant fire at the HTI Recycling plant.

The defendant, whose name is not being published because he was 13 at the time of the Aug. 10 fire, pleaded guilty Thursday to third-degree burglary and fourth-degree arson.

The friend testified Friday that the defendant made the comment, "Joe is gone," before he even played the desperate voice mail from Phillips, in which the trapped boy shouted, "I'm (expletive) gonna die!"

The friend said he'd been in the vacant HTI office building more than 10 times, with the defendant, Phillips or both.

He testified that a video clip shown for the first time Thursday showed Phillips poking through the remains of burned papers Phillips had lit in the HTI building the week before the big blaze.

"Didn't Joe tell you, 'I'm a pyromaniac'?" defense counsel A. Angelo DiMillo asked.

"Yes," the mutual friend answered.

He also testified that he told Phillips not to start a fire when he was in the building with Phillips the previous week, but Phillips did it anyway and directed the friend to take a video of that fire on his cellphone. The friend said he did so.

Niagara County Family Court Judge John F. Batt on Friday scheduled sentencing April 4 for the defendant.

The longest sentence Batt can impose is 18 months in a detention facility operated by one of two state agencies: the Office of Children and Family Services or the Department of Social Services.

Batt also has the option of placing the boy on probation or granting him a conditional discharge or an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

The boy pleaded guilty to the charges as an accomplice to Joseph Phillips, 14, who did not leave the burning building when the defendant did. Phillips tried to extinguish the fire that got out of control, was trapped in the building and died.

Friday morning, Batt finished watching a video of an 80-minute interview conducted by Lockport Police Detective Lt. Todd A. Chenez with the defendant and his parents on the night of the fire, Aug. 10.

The defendant said he had accompanied Phillips into the vacant former office building, but Phillips started the fire.

Video clips recovered from the defendant's cellphone showed Phillips making his way through some brush, apparently on the HTI property, and climbing a ladder to enter the building. The defendant told police that the ladder led to the roof, and they then jumped into the building through a second-story window.

The cellphone video also showed a fire fueled by papers and boxes on a floor inside the building, but no faces were visible. The defendant told Chenez that there were two fires: one on the second floor, which he and Phillips extinguished with the contents of a discarded Gatorade bottle, and the fatal fire on the first floor.

On the interview video, the defendant told his father that when he left, Phillips "was using his shirt to put it out."

"That'll make it worse," the father replied.

While Chenez was outside the interview room, the defendant's mother warned her son that he could be charged as an accomplice, which did in fact happen.

"You need to be careful about what you say," the mother said. "I pray Joe's OK, but that doesn't make everything else OK."

"This is a huge (expletive) storm. Huge," the father told his son.

The boy told Chenez that he ran to another friend's house nearby after escaping the building, "and I told him what was going on. When I came outside, there was a giant blaze."

The last video clip from the phone shows the massive fire while two boys debate whether they should report what they knew. The friend testified Friday that his was the voice urging, "We have to tell them. The building's falling."

He said the defendant was the person who replied, "Are you kidding me?"

The friend testified the defendant tried to delete the videos from his phone "because he was scared. He didn't want to get in trouble."

 

 

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