Teen charged in fatal Lockport fire pleads guilty to arson, burglary

LOCKPORT, N.Y. (WIVB) — The 14-year-old facing 10 juvenile charges related to the August fatal fire at a Lockport tire recycling plant pleaded guilty to two of them Thursday in Niagara County Family Court.

But videos shown during the case’s dispositional phase — akin to sentencing in adult court — paint a very different picture than what defense attorneys have presented thus far.
The Aug. 10 fire at HTI Recycling required a more than 36-hour fire fight to extinguish, and left another 14-year-old, Joseph Phillips dead.
Phillips and the teen on trial sneaked into an abandoned building on the sprawling HTI property and started a series of fires. The teen charged with the fire escaped; Phillips became trapped, and his remains weren’t discovered by investigators until the evening of Aug. 12.
Defense attorneys have said Phillips is mostly responsible for the blaze that caused millions in damage and essentially shut the city down for three humid days in mid August.
Still, their client faced 10 total charges — including multiple counts of arson and criminal mischief, burglary and the most serious, criminally negligent homicide.
He pleaded guilty Thursday to one count of arson and one count of burglary. He faces up to 18 months in a juvenile detention center and the maximum restitution amount permitted in juvenile proceedings, which is $1,500.
When asked about the plea deal, Niagara County prosecutor Claude Joerg said the family agreed with the settlement, so long as additional evidence was introduced during the sentencing phase.
“They’re satisfied as long as the videos are played in court so the involvement of their son can be put into property perspective,” Joerg said.
The teen was then excused from the courtroom.
Videos taken from the teen’s cell phone by Lockport police showed he and Phillips bypassing a fence near the abandoned building, and climbing a ladder once used as a fire escape to enter via a window near the roof.
Once inside, Phillips is seen igniting pieces of paper with a lighter. Until Thursday, what the court hadn’t seen was the role the other 14-year-old played.
The videos show the teen on trial using other pieces of paper to ignite additional piles, and using rolled up paper like a torch to explore the dim space. At one point, the videos showed multiple fires, with trails of embers leading into the darkness.
The final video lifted off the teen’s cell phone is taken from the credit union across the street from HTI, the building engulfed in flames in the background. A different friend of the teen urges him to “tell somebody” about Phillips trapped inside, but the video cuts off before any action is taken.
Attorneys have said the teen left Phillips behind in the burning building, ran to another friend’s house and deleted the videos he had just taken. Though they were deleted, the videos were able to be lifted from the phone because they had been sent to the teen’s girlfriend.
Jeorg also presented of an interrogation of the teen and his parents by Lockport Detective Lt. Todd Chenez.
Several minutes into the interview, the teen uses the word “we” when referring to who started the fires. His mother promptly cut him off, urging him to refer only to Phillips as the person who started the fire.
“We started the fire–” the teen said before he was cut off.
“Wait, you said ‘we,'” the teen’s mother said. “Joe started the fire.”
Several minutes later, with Chenez and the teen’s mother out of the room, the teen’s father urges his son to place much of the responsibility on Phillips, because “Joe’s gone,” he said quietly.
Those sentiments were juxtaposed by other moments of the interrogation, when the teen’s mother refers to Phillips in an endearing way.
“I just want them to find Joe,” the teen’s mother said. “We all loved him. He’s like family.”
Later, she said, “I pray Joe’s OK, but that doesn’t make everything OK.”
The teen’s father also pointed to the hundreds of firefighters — from nearly every department in Niagara County — who were called to the scene, “wasted money and putting lives at risk.”
Niagara County Family Court Judge John Batt adjourned Thursday session 40 minutes into the more than hourlong interrogation.
The rest of the video was expected to be shown when the case resumed at 10 a.m. Friday. Batt said he would likely take a few weeks to issue his decision on the teen’s final disposition, which could include anything from a diversion program and the juvenile equivalent to probation, to 18 months in a juvenile detention facility.
The trial was adjounred until April.

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