Convicted arsonist in 1982 LODD charged in new series of arson fires
As crews battled consecutive blazes, one member noticed a man hiding in a car; firefighters surrounded the vehicle until police arrived
By Rick Pfeiffer
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. — A man who did 24 years in prison for arson that took the life of a Falls firefighter is undergoing a mental health evaluation after being linked to a series of blazes that erupted Monday night and early Tuesday.
Falls police have confirmed that Joseph M. Gaines, 59, has been placed at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center under Section 941 of the state Mental Health Law. Gaines has also been charged with counts of criminal trespass and criminal mischief in connection with a series of fires that took broke out on the 5500 block of Lockport Road.
The first fire in the series was reported at 6:14 p.m. when firefighters were dispatched to Myles Scrap Yard, 5501 Lockport Road. The first firefighters on the scene said they saw three separate areas, in the southeast corner of the scrap yard, where multiple vehicles were engulfed in flames.
"They were big," Fire Chief Joe Pedulla said of the blazes his crews encountered.
Firefighters battled the blazes for more than three hours, hampered by their location and difficulty getting equipment into the area. Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station firefighters helped battle the fires by spraying water from the side of the I-190 using their crash and rescue truck.
By 9:30 p.m., the fires were contained and declared under control.
As firefighters began to clean up and move equipment out of the yard, they were suddenly confronted with a new set of fires in the northeast corner of the scrap yard. Falls firefighters, standing by outside the scrap yard, also spotted flames coming from the garage of a Lockport Road home, directly across the street from the scrap yard.
While volunteers from Niagara Active Hose responded to the garage fire and Falls crews poured water on the new burns in the scrap yard, a Falls firefighter began to scan the yard with a spotlight mounted on a fire apparatus.
"The firefighter was looking around the yard with a spotlight and he noticed someone hiding in a vehicle," Pedulla said. "My firefighters surrounded the individual in the vehicle and detained him until police arrived."
The individual in the car was Gaines.
Gaines was taken into custody and issued an appearance ticket for criminal trespass. He was released from custody because the charge does not qualify for bail under New York's Bail Reform Act.
At about 4:13 a.m., firefighters were again called to the Myles Scrap Yard about a fire in a tractor-trailer filled with tires. The first firefighters on the scene found flames shooting into the air and heavy black smoke billowing from the trailer.
As they battled the new blaze, a fire investigator found a cell phone near the trailer.
"We called for a scent dog," Pedulla said. "And the Niagara County Sheriff's Office K-9 Unit responded."
The fire chief said the Sheriff's K-9 began tracking a scent that took investigators to the garage that was previously burned, to a nearby vehicle where evidence was discovered, and then to another house across the street from the scarp yard.
"On the front porch of the house they located an individual sitting there," Pedulla said. "It was the same individual that had been arrested earlier."
Gaines was again taken into custody. He was charged with criminal mischief and then committed to the psychiatric unit at Memorial Medical Center.
Pedulla said a second sheriff's K-9 also took a scent track, identical to the first K-9.
"He left our jail at 3:25 a.m.," Police Superintendent John Faso said of Gaines, "and at 4:30 a.m. he was at another fire."
Gaines is not a stranger to many members of the Niagara Falls Fire Department.
In February 1982, Gaines was charged with second-degree murder and multiple additional felonies in connection with a fire that began in the Apex grocery store on 56th Street. Firefighter Charles Palmore, 51, was killed while searching the building for occupants. Palmore became trapped inside the building and is believed to have died from smoke inhalation and oxygen deprivation, according to news reports at the time. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Gaines was convicted of attempted second-degree murder in October 1982. He was sentenced to a minimum prison term of eight years and a maximum of 25 years.
Records from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision show that Gaines served 24 years behind bars and was released from custody in July 2006.
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