Did the Fire Chief set the deadly blaze?

Jay Leiderman
By: Jay Leiderman
February 05 2015

After 36 Years, a New York Town Sifts Through Suspicions on a Fatal Fire

“Law enforcement officials in Greece, N.Y., say they are close to seeking an indictment in connection with a 1978 motel fire that killed 10 people.”

[W]hat Greece lacks in permanent memorials it makes up for in coffee-shop conversations, and opinions, about who set the fire and why justice has never been served.

Thirty-six years later, the blaze — one of the deadliest hotel fires in the state’s history — is still under active investigation. Law enforcement officials say they are close to seeking an indictment; the prime suspect says he is innocent. Yet for people in this working-class town outside Rochester, the story is as much one of local political intrigue as of law and order.

The twist? According to officials briefed on the case, that suspect — who was also the first firefighter to arrive at the scene — is the current fire chief.

* * *

Harold J. Phillips, then an off-duty lieutenant with the Ridge Road Fire District, was the first to report the fire, which began in a basement stairwell.

Mr. Phillips, who is both the suspect and the Ridge Road district’s current chief, has always maintained that the fire’s outbreak was accidental. He declined to be interviewed for this article. He told The Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester in 2013 that the suspicion about him had taken a toll. “All these innuendos and rumors out there not only bother me, but are hurtful to my family,” he said.

Chief Phillips’s lawyer, James Nobles, said in a statement on Saturday that there was “no credible evidence” that his client “had any involvement in the fire.”

“I believe, after a thorough investigation, that the fire being an arson is also very questionable,” Mr. Nobles said, adding that he doubted that any presentation of the case to a grand jury was “likely or imminent.”

The Fire Burned the Holiday Inn in Greece, NY

Harold J. Phillips in 1978. A fire lieutenant at the time, he was the first to report the blaze. Credit Burr Lewis/Democrat and Chronicle

In interviews over the years, Chief Phillips, who is known as Bud, has said he was driving by the Holiday Inn after finishing a moonlighting shift as a security guard when he saw the flames.

His call, just after 2:30 a.m., set off a swell of sirens; 125 firefighters were soon battling a full-on inferno as motel guests leapt from the windows in their pajamas. Dozens were injured. More than 150 people escaped, but 10 did not. Seven of the dead were Canadians, including three women from one family.

“In my world, I was in the right place at the right time,” Chief Phillips told The Democrat and Chronicle in 2013. “My actions saved lives.”

To many in town, though, Chief Phillips, now 66, was no hero.

A local investigator initially called the fire an accident. But an expert fire investigator from New York City, John Stickevers, was quickly brought in. He concluded that the blaze had been deliberately set. The police in Greece had 10 homicides on their hands.

Mr. Stickevers, who retired years later as New York City’s chief fire marshal, recalled in an interview that he first saw Chief Phillips while watching coverage of the fire on television when it happened. He sensed something was off, he said, but could not say exactly what.

His suspicions were heightened, he said, when he arrived in Greece to conduct his inquiry: He asserts that it would have been impossible to see the flames from the street, as Chief Phillips had described.

The link to the full article is at the top of this post.

[Ventura County, California criminal defense lawyer and State Bar Certified Criminal Law Specialist Jay Leiderman provides defense of cases involving oppression leveled against activists and hacktivists. He does all types of cases involving the digital revolution, civil rights, political dissent, emerging tech issues in the courts, piracy, Search and seizure issues, freedom on the internet, fighting against unjust systems, governmental and prosecutorial overreach, medical marijuana, and overall injustice. Jay fights for the underdog. Jay is a lifetime member of the NORML Legal Committee. Jay is pro-privacy for hte individual and believes in transparency for hte state and large corporations. He is also a member of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), The National Lawyer’s Guild (NLG), The California Public Defender’s Association (CPDA) and is also a lifetime member of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice (CACJ). He is admitted to practice in state and federal courts.]

22 thoughts on “Did the Fire Chief set the deadly blaze?

  1. Now they got very much hope invested in the special prosecutors for police misconduct. More importantly, just like in Seinfeld where Kramer says they’re out to get everybody, and George says, “The government?” No, you steer clear when you say something that way, as he or she, I don’t care what hes or shes are in the sherbet theory. Pirate, just as he (nobody) asked.
    The claim at her I’m lookin’ at, they got you a shirt from the film “Life of Brian”. (They) asks King Herod to release Roderick, instead of Jesus. The Luthor at it in Rome said, “We-Weece Woddewick!” I raised the one

  2. Helping shape law

    Today, Leiderman is one of the top attorneys in the country for people accused of violating the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or the CFAA. It’s a red-hot area of law, the subject of recent congressional hearings by lawmakers concerned with the prosecution of programmer and activist Aaron Swartz, who was facing CFAA charges when he committed suicide in January.

    Although he didn’t work on Swartz’s defense, Leiderman seems to have had a piece of almost every other headline-grabbing hacking case. This month, when Reuters social media editor Matthew Keys was indicted on charges of enabling a hack of a newspaper website owned by his former employer, Tribune Company, he hired Leiderman as one half of his defense team.

    Like the rest of his computer crimes work, Leiderman took the Keys case pro bono. He pays the bills doing standard criminal defense work in Ventura County, including the ongoing appeal of convicted rapist Andrew Luster’s 124-year sentence, and defending medical marijuana sellers all over the state.

    Computer crimes interest him for the same reason medical marijuana does: It’s an area of the law that’s relatively new, so there are plenty of gray areas and potential test cases.

    “In both cases, you’re just starting to see the law being shaped, and you can be the tip of that blade that’s shaping the law,” he said.

    Leiderman, 41, started his career as a public defender and now has his own firm. He traces his interest in computer crimes to late 2010 and early 2011, when his wife was pregnant with their son. They’d stopped going out at night, and Leiderman quickly grew tired of watching television.

    He started reading about the hacker collective Anonymous and its war on PayPal, Visa and MasterCard. The companies had all blocked donations to WikiLeaks after the site published its trove of leaked diplomatic cables. Anonymous retaliated with something called a distributed denial-of-service attack, slowing down the financial companies’ websites.

    The U.S. government was tracking the hackers and prosecuting some of them, and that didn’t sit well with Leiderman. He thought the denial-of-service attacks were legitimate protests and should be treated the same as a march or a sit-in.

    Sometime in the spring of 2011, Leiderman announced on Twitter that he would be happy to represent any “righteous hacktivists” free of charge. A friend retweeted the message to influential people in the hacker community, and the next thing Leiderman knew, he was exchanging emails with Commander X.

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