April 28, 2017 02:48 PM

With some of his last words, 14-year-old Joseph Phillips called his best friend in a panic. He was trapped inside a tire recycling plant in Lockport, New York, that was burning to the ground around him.

“I’m really stuck,” Phillips told the other boy, who was 13, according to the Associated Press. “Dude, I’m [expletive]. I’m [expletive] going to die.”

The 30-second voicemail ended with Phillips telling his friend, “Sorry, dude. I love you, man. I never thought I would die this way.”

His body was found on Aug. 12 in the ruins of High Tread International Recycling in Lockport, two days after the start of a massive fire that destroyed four buildings on the property, according to the AP and the Buffalo News.

His body was reportedly identified a week later, and his mother wrote on Facebook that her son “burned to death.”

The fire that killed Phillips lasted for three days — the largest in the city’s history — temporarily displacing nearby families and causing millions in damages, the News reported.

But it stuck with the community for another reason: Phillips’ friend, the teenage boy he called before he died, was with him when the fires were started and was arrested in connection with his death. The friend later admitted to being an accomplice to the arson.

“I’ve been doing this since 2004, and I’ve never seen a case of this magnitude that divided the community the way that this divided the community,” John Sansone, the prosecutor in the case, tells PEOPLE.

At issue among local residents were intersecting questions about responsibility and proper punishment. Who was truly to blame for what happened, and what consequences should there be?

In this Aug. 10, 2016, photo, plumes of dark smoke rise from a recycling plant fire in Lockport New York.
James Neiss/The Niagara Gazette/AP
This Sept. 2, 2016, photo shows the aftermath of a recycling plant fire in Lockport, New York.
AP

A ‘Tragic Situation’

Authorities have argued the two boys, Philips and his friend, entered the HTI recycling property in August in order to start fires in an abandoned building there, the News reported.

But the friend, who is now 14 years old, told investigators that Phillips was the one with a lighter and lit the fire that ultimately grew out of control. An earlier fire was put out by liquid from a Gatorade bottle, according to the News.

In March, the friend admitted in family court to felony-level counts of fourth-degree arson and third-degree burglary, Sansone tells PEOPLE.

His defense attorney, A. Angelo DiMillo, says his client admitted he was an accomplice, which prosecutors confirm.

The friend was previously charged in family court with criminally negligent homicide and nine other counts, and a fact-finding hearing, the family court version of a trial, was already underway before his admission, which is the family court version of a plea, according to the News.

He was sentenced on Tuesday to a year’s probation, which he will spend as much of receiving psychiatric inpatient treatment as his doctors feel is necessary, DiMillo says.

PEOPLE does not identify juveniles who have been charged or convicted of crimes unless they are tried or plead as adults.

“Any way that it’s resolved would have been a tragic situation,” says Sansone, an assistant county attorney in Niagara County, New York. “You can’t bring Joe Phillips back. You can’t bring those buildings back.”

Friend in ‘Deep Depression,’ Says Lawyer

DiMillo shares Sansone’s sentiment. “I feel terrible for Joe’s family, I really do,” he tells PEOPLE. “I can only try and imagine the heartache that they’re going through.”

“This is a tragedy beyond anyone’s imagination,” he says.

But DiMillo has argued that his client did not leave his friend trapped in the burning building, as some locals misunderstood. Rather, he ran outside to a friend to get help while Phillips stayed behind to try to put out the fire with his shirt.

“A young boy lost his life based upon a decision he made,” DiMillo says. “We’re not blaming him.”

The friend learned Phillips was trapped, via his voicemail, only seven or eight minutes later as he was returning to the scene of the fire, according to DiMillo. But it was too late.

This still image from an Aug. 10, 2016, video provided by the Lockport Police Department shows a fire being set inside a vacant building at High Tread International, a tire recycling plant in Lockport, New York.
AP

DiMillo says Phillips’ friend, who he says had no criminal or mental health issues prior to the fire, has been pushed into a “deep depression” because of what happened and his role in it.

“It’s certainly going to be a burden he’s going to bear the rest of his life,” DiMillo says.

But the sentencing the boy received this week was appropriate and will allow him to receive necessary treatment, he says. “You want to see him get through this so he has a life worth living.”

Sansone, the prosecutor, unsuccessfully sought a slightly different sentencing for the friend, which involved more supervision from social services to ensure he was fit and able to move forward.

“I hope [he] gets the help he needs,” Sansone says.

“I don’t think that the disposition of the case is going to resolve the discussion among the community about what really happened and the [friend’s] involvement,” he says. “And  I think that’s going to linger on, and the fire will certainly linger on.”

From left: Ann and Mark Phillips hold a picture of their late son, Joe, outside Niagara County Family Court in New York on April 25, 2017.
Carolyn Thompson/AP

Victim ‘Liked Everybody’

Phillips’ parents, Ann and Mark Phillips, were in court on Tuesday, according to the AP. They brought a framed photo of their son.

“I just thought that Joseph should be here, because they talk about him and they talk badly about him,” Ann told the AP. (The Phillips did not return calls seeking comment.)

His father described him as a “good kid.”

Ann told the News, “I honestly don’t have anything against the kid,” her son’s friend, and she said she was “glad” he was getting treatment.

“They both did what [teenage] boys do: They get into mischief they maybe shouldn’t have,” DiMillo says, adding, “They didn’t know this building was going to go up in flames as quick as it was.”

“Joe liked everybody,” Ann told the AP. “He was the type of kid who wanted to be friends with everybody.”

• With reporting by KC BAKER

You May Like

EDIT POST