Teen gets probation, psychiatric care in friend’s death

Carolyn Thompson
Associated Press

Lockport, N.Y. — A teenager who has been in and out of the hospital with mental health problems since the death of a friend in a massive fire the boys started was sentenced Tuesday to a year of probation.

A Family Court judge also ordered the 14-year-old boy, who was not in court, to receive inpatient psychiatric care that is expected to last several months.

The teen, who was 13 at the time of the fire last summer, could have received 18 months in a juvenile detention facility after pleading guilty in March to arson and burglary as part of an agreement that erased a charge of criminally negligent homicide in the death of his 14-year-old friend, Joseph Phillips.

Phillips’ parents, Ann and Mark Phillips, held a framed picture of their son Tuesday as the judge closed out an emotional legal drama that included the playing of a frantic voicemail their son left on his friend’s cellphone letting him know he was trapped, and that he loved him.

“I’m really stuck, dude,” Phillips shouted into the voicemail of the boy who’d been with him moments earlier at the tire recycling complex. “I’m (expletive) going to die.”

Then panting, with resignation in his voice, “Sorry, dude. I love you, man,” the call ended. “I never thought I’d die this way.”

During a break in the hearing Tuesday, as the surviving teen’s health was discussed behind closed doors, Phillips’ parents held onto their son’s photo.

“I just thought that Joseph should be here because they talk about him, and they talk badly about him,” Ann Phillips said.

“He was a good kid,” his father added.

Firefighters found Joe’s body on Aug. 13 in the rubble of the fire that began Aug. 10, when the boys sneaked into a vacant building at High Tread International in Lockport and lit papers on fire as they roamed the former office space.

Joe had been missing since the fire’s start but the family had held out hope the boy weeks away from beginning high school had made it out.

“He might be scared and he’s hiding to avoid getting into trouble,” his older sister Alyssa Phillips wrote on Facebook. “Until I see his dead body, I will keep believing he’s alive.”

Looking back, Ann Phillips says it doesn’t surprise her that her son used his final moments to express his love to a friend.

“Joe liked everybody,” she said. “He was the type of kid who wanted to be friends with everybody.”

Along with the phone message, video found on the surviving teen’s phone offered a view into the building that day. It shows a fire escape the teens used to get inside. They walk though darkened rooms using a lighter to ignite papers and watch them burn.

The video and phone message, obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information request, were first reported by Buffalo television station WIVB.

“This is how you make, like, a real big fire,” one of the boys is heard saying while video shows papers curling into brightening flames.

“Oh, it’s going to spread out. Oh, it’s so cool,” the other boy says.

When one of the fires spread too quickly, defense attorney A. Angelo DiMillo said, the surviving teen ran outside to get water as Joe used his shirt to try to tamp down the flames.