LOCKPORT – The 14-year-old boy who pleaded guilty in the massive HTI Recycling arson fire last summer – the largest blaze in Lockport history – was placed on probation for one year by a Family Court judge.
Judge John F. Batt on Tuesday ordered the juvenile defendant to stay in inpatient treatment at the Western New York Children's Psychiatric Center in West Seneca until his doctor discharges him.
"With an order of probation supervision, I can make sure that happens," Batt said.
The teenager has been in inpatient psychiatric treatment at Erie County Medical Center on and off since October. His last commitment there came after he attempted suicide March 31 by overdosing on medication. He was not in court Tuesday.
After his release from inpatient treatment, the boy must continue with outpatient counseling for as long as his doctor mandates, the judge said.
In addition to his treatment, the teenager also must attend "any reasonable education opportunities offered to him to complete his education," Batt said.
The tire recycling plant burned Aug. 10-13 and killed the defendant's best friend, Joseph Phillips, 14, who was trapped in the burning building. The defendant, who escaped, said his last view of Phillips was seeing him trying to put out the fire with his shirt.
The defendant, who was 13 at the time of the blaze, told police that he and Phillips went to an abandoned office building on the HTI property on the evening of Aug. 10. Phillips had a lighter and intended to start fires, according to the defendant, who was charged as an accomplice to Phillips.
The teenager pleaded guilty March 16 to felony-level counts of arson and burglary.
Ann Phillips, the dead boy's mother, brought a framed photo of her son to court Tuesday. She did not object to the outcome.
"I'm glad he's getting the help he needs," Phillips said. "I honestly don't have anything against the kid."
Defense attorney A. Angelo DiMillo, who fought against sending the defendant to a state detention facility, called the judge's ruling "a very thoughtful decision."
"I'm pleased as can be that this child is on probation, getting appropriate help," DiMillo said.
"My opinion about it doesn't matter," said the prosecutor, Assistant County Attorney John S. Sansone. "It's really how the family feels."
At the start of Tuesday's court session, DiMillo read aloud parts of a letter to Batt by Lockport Detective Lt. Todd A. Chenez, who investigated the case.
"He will not get the help he needs locked up in a detention center," Chenez wrote. "If, however, (the boy) refuses to get the help he needs, I recommend that he be placed in detention for the maximum period of time."
The maximum would have been 18 months, a penalty the defendant still risks if he violates probation. In addition to the psychiatric treatment, the boy must report regularly to a probation officer. If he's in a treatment facility, the probation officer must come to him, Batt ordered.
According to previous testimony, the boys entered the building by wriggling under a fence and climbing a ladder. A small fire was set in boxes and papers they found on the floor, but the boys put that one out. Then, according to the defendant, Phillips started another fire, which rapidly spread up the walls of the building.
Minutes after the defendant fled, he received a desperate cellphone call from Phillips, which went to voicemail, in which Phillips shouted obscenities about being trapped.
The defendant called back seven times, with one call, whose contents have not been revealed, lasting almost two minutes. Other calls lasted only a few seconds, apparently indicating Phillips didn't answer.
Batt also imposed the maximum restitution payment to HTI allowed by law, which is $1,500.
Chenez's letter concluded, "This tragic event took one boy's life. We should not let it take another."
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