Testimony continues in trial of teen accused of starting deadly Lockport fire

LOCKPORT, N.Y. (WIVB) – The court case against a 14-year-old boy who is accused of helping set last summer’s fatal fire at a tire recycling facility continued into its second day Wednesday morning.

The boy, who News 4 is not naming because of his age, appeared before Family Court Judge John Batt for the continuation of the fact finding hearing, which is essentially a non-jury trial in family court.

Judge Batt will have to determine whether the teenager is guilty of criminally negligent homicide and arson, among other charges, in connection with a fire August 10, 2016, that killed his friend, 14-year-old Joseph Phillips.

The suspect’s attorney has claimed Phillips led his client into the vacant building on the HTI recycling property, and that it was Phillips who started the fire.

Most of the morning Wednesday, the court heard testimony from the owner of HTI, Derek Martin, about the extent of the damage from the fire and the layout and history of the property.

Martin told the court the fire caused more than $13 million dollars in losses, both in property that was damaged and in ongoing hardships from the loss of production capabilities. HTI takes old tires and re-purposes them into small rubber pellets that are used for fill in athletic fields and in other ways.

Martin says his company is losing $300,000 a month in contracts it can’t fulfill anymore, and in fact, now has to pay out to landfill the tires it is still obligated to take in.

Martin also testified that the building where the fire started had been used as an office building by the property’s previous owner, Buffalo Paperboard, but had been boarded up for the last several years.

He said at no time had he given the suspect or anyone else permission to go into the building, which is likely going to be a critical element in the prosecutor’s case for some of the charges, including criminal trespass.

The accused teen, who was 13 years old at the time of the fire, 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, in addition to the criminally negligent homicide charge.

His attorney, A. Angelo DiMillo, has said his client ran out of the burning building to try to get water to put out a fire that had gotten out of control. He says the boy last saw Phillips using his shirt to try to put out the fire.

Phillips never made it out of the building, and his body was discovered the next day.

Before his death, though, Phillips made a phone call from inside the burning building, leaving a voicemail on the accused teen’s phone.

Wednesday morning’s proceedings wrapped up with the accused teen’s mother on the stand, testifying about a paper she and her son signed the evening of August 10, giving police permission to access that voicemail. She was also answering questions about her son’s phone log.

Several other people are still expected to testify in this fact finding hearing, which was scheduled to wrap up Wednesday afternoon. If there’s not time to hear all the testimony before then, the case will have to be picked back up in March.

This is a developing story. Stick with News 4 on air and online for the latest information from the courtroom.

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