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State detention urged for teen in fatal Lockport arson who tried to harm himself

LOCKPORT – A 14-year-old boy being sentenced for his role in a massive Lockport fire last August that killed his best friend has been admitted to Erie County Medical Center three times since October for a total of 64 days.

The teenager remains hospitalized there after overdosing on medication. He did not attend Tuesday's sentencing hearing.

A Niagara County probation officer recommended at the sentencing hearing that the teenager should be sent to a state detention facility.

Probation Officer Marcella Carson testified she didn't think the teenager's parents or grandparents could handle him.

"I did not feel the parents or grandparents were properly able to supervise (the boy)," Carson said. "That was before he overdosed on medication."

The boy's sentencing hearing will continue April 25 in Family Court.

Most if not all of that session will be held behind closed doors, attorneys on both sides said.

Judge John F. Batt, in response to renewed motions from defense attorney A. Angelo DiMillo, refused to close the entire hearing Tuesday. But he decided testimony about the boy's medical treatment and records should be taken in private.

On the stand Tuesday, Dr. Dori R. Marshall, director of the adolescent psychiatry unit at Erie County Medical Center, said the boy has been admitted to ECMC three times since October, for a total of 64 days.

The boy was brought from ECMC to Lockport to enter his guilty pleas to arson and burglary on March 16. He was released to live in his grandfather's home March 23, but by March 31 he was back at ECMC.

Marshall said media coverage of the case triggered the teenager's attempt to harm himself.

The teenager fled the Aug. 10 fire at HTI Recycling that killed his best friend, Joseph Phillips, 14, who was trapped inside the burning building.

"When he went home, he got on the internet and read things that were very hurtful, very distressing to him," said Marshall, who urged Batt to close the hearing to the public and the media.

Assistant County Attorney John S. Sansone opposed the request.

"The question is whether exposure to media worsened his condition. There has to be a direct correlation," Sansone said.

DiMillo said the boy "has a right to privacy. Medical treatment, medical records should be private."

DiMillo said the teenager "is in a very tenuous mental health situation. We don't want information to reach him."

Batt said online postings such as Facebook posts and readers' comments on media reports "run both ways. Some are critical, some are understanding."

Batt said he would not issue a general exclusion order "until there can be a direct showing of harm to (the defendant)."

Carson testified that she thought placement in a facility operated by the state Department of Social Services would be better than leaving the teenager in the community.

She told Batt that such placement would offer "supervision 24-7. Medication would not be readily accessible to (him). He could still treat with his current therapist."

Carson testified that the boy struck two schoolmates in separate incidents last March, and his parents took him for counseling, but didn't follow through on a recommendation from that counselor for a full neuropsychiatric examination because they couldn't afford it.

The boy, who was 13 at the time of the blaze, pleaded guilty to two felony-level charges: third-degree burglary and fourth-degree arson.

The pleas satisfied a 10-count charge list that accused him of acting as an accomplice to Phillips.

The defendant originally was charged with criminally negligent homicide, but the prosecution did not insist on a guilty plea to that count.

The most severe sentence Batt can impose on the teenager is 18 months in a detention facility operated by either the state Department of Social Services or the Office of Children and Family Services.

Batt also has the option of a shorter sentence of detention or of placing the boy on probation. He also could grant a conditional discharge or an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. The boy also will face a restitution order for the benefit of HTI, which by state law is limited to $1,500. The company's owner, Derek Martin, testified at the trial that he filed an insurance claim of $13 million.

Firefighters from across Niagara County responded to the fire at HTI Recycling last August. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Phillips died inside an abandoned office building that he and the defendant had entered by wiggling under a fence and climbing a ladder to the roof.

The defendant told police that a small fire was set in papers they found inside the building, but after a few minutes, they extinguished it with the contents of a Gatorade bottle they found.

The defendant, however, said Phillips started another fire a few moments later in a different location, and this one quickly got out of control, spreading up the walls to the ceiling. The defendant told police he ran from the building and urged Phillips to leave, too, but Phillips did not. The defendant said the last thing he saw before he left was Phillips trying to put out the blaze with his shirt.

'Joe chose to stay': Attorney defends boy, 14, on trial in arson death of best friend

A few minutes later, Phillips phoned the defendant, but the call went to voicemail. The 19-second message, played during the trial, started with the trapped boy repeatedly shouting obscenities, ending with "I'm gonna (expletive) die!"

Phillips then panted three times, dropped his voice and said, "I love you, man."

A few unintelligible words and the phrase "die this way" followed before the message ended.

A mutual friend of the two boys testified that in a prior conversation, Phillips said, "I'm a pyromaniac."

That friend also said that the defendant ran to his house after escaping the fire and was trying to delete videos from his phone that he had taken at the scene.

Recovered by police, the videos showed a boy, apparently Phillips, making his way through brush outside the building; a small fire burning; and in the final clip, the gigantic blaze.

On the soundtrack of that last clip, the mutual friend said, "We have to tell them. The building's falling." The defendant replied, "Are you kidding me?"

'We have to tell them. The building's falling:' Cellphone video in fatal arson

But after the defendant played the voicemail for his mother later that evening, she contacted Lockport police.

The cellphone's call log showed that the defendant called Phillips back seven times in 31 minutes after the voicemail was received. The first call lasted one minute and 54 seconds. Its contents were never discussed during the trial or the 80-minute videotaped interview between the defendant and Lockport Detective Lt. Todd A. Chenez.

All of the subsequent calls lasted nine seconds or less, perhaps indicating that Phillips didn't answer and the calls went to voicemail.

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