Sep. 14-LOCKPORT - Two Falls teenagers have pleaded guilty to charges connected to their roles in a fatal arson fire, ignited by the illegal use of fireworks.
Zachary Preisch, 19, pleaded guilty to a charge of criminally negligent homicide in the fatal arson case and two counts of attempted second-degree criminal possession of a weapon in connection to two unrelated shooting incidents.
Damion Ellis, 19, pleaded guilty to a single count of second-degree manslaughter.
Each teen had been charged with single counts of second-degree murder and single counts of first-degree arson. They entered their pleas to criminal complaints during a Monday morning hearing before Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III.
The deal, with Niagara County prosecutors, allowed the teens to avoid a grand jury indictment with potentially more serious charges and possibly lengthier prison terms.
Murphy committed to a sentence of 12/3 to 5 years behind bars for Ellis and a cap of no more than 7 years in prison for Preisch.
The teens admitted that they had been setting off fireworks in the vacant lower apartment of 1815 Niagara St. on July 6, 2020. One of the fireworks landed on a couch that had been left in the apartment.
Fire investigators determined that the firework smoldered in the couch for between 15 and 20 minutes before exploding into flames. The resulting fire, described at the time as a "roaring inferno", destroyed three structures in the 1800 block of Niagara Street and took the life of Ward Schaal, 52, who lived in the second floor apartment of the home where the fire started.
Fire officials said the first call for the blaze came in at around 11:45 p.m. and when firefighters arrived on the scene, they found the two-and-a-half-story, wood-frame home where Schaal lived, "fully engulfed in flames."
"The flames were so intense, we couldn't get into the home to check (for anyone who might have been trapped)," Falls Fire Chief Joe Pedulla said at the time.
Pedulla said firefighting crews were on the scene of the blaze within 90 seconds of the call coming in to dispatchers. He said the spread of the fire and the speed with which it spread made the blaze tough to battle.
As the firefighters tried to control the flames, the fire began to spread to two nearby structures. Another two-and-a-half story, wood-frame dwelling and a commercial building, with upstairs apartments, were also set ablaze.
The fire chief said it took firefighters more than an hour to gain control of the flames. More than three hours after they arrived, fire crews were finally able to enter Schaal's apartment, but could not locate him.
"By the time we were able to get inside, the roof had collapsed (into the home)," Pedulla said. "We moved as much (debris) as we could by hand."
When demolition contractors arrived on the scene, the next day, they were able to remove "heavy roof debris" and firefighters made the grim discovery of human remains.
"The body was found at the rear of the second floor," Pedulla said. "We know (Schaal) lived on the second floor, and stayed up front. The fire may have driven him to the back and he was trying to get out the back of the house."
In taking their pleas, Ellis admitted that he set off the fireworks that sparked the blaze. Preisch said he did nothing to stop the fire from igniting.
A little more than two weeks prior to the fatal blaze, a nearby commercial building was also set on fire by the careless use of fireworks. That fire caused relatively minor damage.
The guns charges against Preisch stemmed from a shooting in the 300 block of 77th Street on May 29, 2020 and a shooting incident in the 2400 block of South Avenue on April 26. No one was injured in either of the shootings.