Trial of teen accused of helping start deadly Lockport fire gets underway

LOCKPORT, N.Y. (WIVB) – A 14-year-old boy who’s accused of helping start last summer’s deadly fire at the HTI tire recycling plant is in Niagara County Family Court to answer to the charges against him.

He appeared Wednesday morning for the first day of what’s scheduled to be a two-day “fact finding hearing”, essentially a non-jury trial for family court matters.

The boy, who was 13 years old at the time of the fire, has been charged with ten counts, including criminally negligent homicide and arson.

Wednesday morning, prosecutors began laying out their case which they say will prove the suspect caused the death of 14-year-old Joseph Phillips through his negligence that day.

Prosecutors have said the suspect and Phillips acted together to break into a vacant building on the HTI property, where they started two fires. The first fire was quickly put out, the second fire got out of control and spread.

The defense attorney in this case, A. Angelo DiMillo, says his client ran out of the building to get some water to put out the flames, adding that the boy last saw Phillips trying to use his shirt to put out the fire.

Phillips never made it out of the building.

During the fact finding hearing Wednesday morning, Judge John Batt heard several recordings of 9-1-1 calls reporting the fire, beginning at 6:36 p.m. On August 10. Half an hour later, a recording of a Lockport police officer’s call to the dispatch center represents the first indication that someone was inside the building.

“August 10, 2016, is a sad, sad day for the Lockport community. A tragedy occurred beyond anyone’s imagination,” DiMillo said in his opening statement.

“Everyone lost that day. The most severe tragedy is the loss of Joe Phillips,” he went on to say, describing Phillips as his client’s best friend.

DiMillo says throughout the course of the fact finding hearing, he’ll show it was Phillips’ idea to light the fire, and Phillips used his lighter to do so.

He says he’ll also bring another young man to the stand who will testify he and Phillips had been in the same building the week before lighting papers on fire.

DiMillo told the judge he’ll prove that on August 10, his client and Phillips were lighting papers “for fun” and not with the intention of burning down the building, which he says means his client should not be convicted of the most serious arson charge.

The assistant County Attorneys prosecuting this case said they plan to call several witnesses and show surveillance video, iPhone video, and audio recordings that will prove that the boy who’s been charged is guilty of all ten counts.

The prosecutors told the judge he would be hearing from three Lockport police detectives, the state fire investigator, medical examiner, and representatives from HTI who will say no one had permission to be in the building where the fire started, a critical element of some of the charges the boy is facing.

In addition to the criminally negligent homicide charge, the 14 year old defendant is charged with burglary in the 3rd degree, arson in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th degrees, four counts of criminal mischief and one count of criminal trespassing.

If he’s convicted, he’ll likely face months, not years, in a juvenile detention center.

News 4 is not naming the suspect in our coverage because of his age.

This is a developing story. Stick with News 4 on air and on line for the latest information as our team coverage continues.

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