SCHENECTADY -- Faulty alarm systems and law enforcement interview procedures were the focus of a pre-trial hearing Thursday for a man charged in connection with the deadly 2015 Jay Street fire.
A former Schenectady police detective and an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms testified about conversations they had with Jason “Jay” Sacks, who was the property manager at 104 Jay St. at the time of the March 6, 2015, fire. After such pre-trial hearings, a judge will determine whether certain conversations can be used in court.
Both of the interviews discussed in court Thursday took place within days of the fire, which killed four people. Sacks was charged in March with multiple counts of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Prosecutors allege he allowed the building’s fire alarm system to stop working, canceled an alarm monitoring service and allowed the building to operate without required fire doors, thus creating conditions that led to the fire's rapid spread.
The first individual to take the stand Thursday was ATF agent Ronald Rhodes, who is part of the bureau’s national response team, based in Augusta, Georgia. He arrived in Schenectady around March 9, 2015, to help investigate the fire, he said.
Rhodes obtained information about a code inspection conducted one day before the fire, he said, and he met with then-Building Inspector Eric Shilling and then-code officer Kenneth Tyree, who performed the inspection.
Tyree was charged in March, after prosecutors alleged he failed to take any action in the wake of his inspection of a faulty fire alarm panel in the building and then lied to investigators about it.
In a back office in the city’s code enforcement department, Rhodes conducted an interview with Sacks that “couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes (long),” he said. Tyree was also present, but at no point participated in the interview, Rhodes said.
The interview was intended to gather information, Rhodes said, and he was particularly focused on the faulty alarm system.
When Rhodes asked about whether the system was still being monitored, Sacks said he didn’t pay the bills at the building, so he didn’t know, Rhodes said.
Rhodes asked Sacks if he’d ever shown anyone how to reset the alarm, as he understood it would frequently go off in the building, Rhodes said. Sacks indicated he had, Rhodes said.
The interview was not recorded, and Rhodes did not take a written statement at the time, he said.
When asked Thursday if he’d read Sacks his Miranda rights during their conversation, Rhodes said he did not: Sacks was not in custody, and Rhodes said he was just trying to gather facts about the fire and the alarm in particular, he said.
When Sacks was interviewed two days later, however, former Schenectady police detective Thomas Ciampolillo did read the property manager his Miranda rights.
Ciampolillo served in the Schenectady Police Department for 17 years, including seven as a detective. He retired in June 2015.
He took the stand Thursday and recounted portions of what he said was at least a three-hour interview with Sacks on March 11, 2015.
About 15 minutes into that conversation, Ciampolillo advised Sacks he was not under arrest but read him his Miranda rights. When prosecutor Michael DeMatteo asked why he did so, the detective said the fire was a “very large incident,” and there were still victims unaccounted for and an undetermined cause. It was done “just to cover our bases,” Ciampolillo said.
Sacks asked if he needed a lawyer, to which Ciampolillo responded he couldn’t answer that for him, the detective said.
In neither interview did Sacks ask for an attorney or ask an official to stop asking questions, Ciampolillo and Rhodes both said. In both interviews, they said, Sacks seemed relaxed, was not in handcuffs and did not appear to be intoxicated.
In Rhodes’ case, a report summarizing his interview was submitted into evidence, though the report does not contain exact quotes from Sacks, he said. In Ciampolillo’s case, he turned over his notes from the interview to a lead investigator, but no party had them at Thursday's hearing.
A second ATF agent who interviewed Sacks in the days following the fire was expected to testify, but he is based in South Carolina and was not present Thursday, DeMatteo said.
As a result, the pre-trial hearing was adjourned until Sept. 12, at which point the agent will take the stand. Judge Michael Eidens is then expected to provide a decision on what information will be admissible during trial.