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LOCKPORT - A Niagara Falls teenager was arraigned in Niagara County Court today on charges of killing 5-year-old Isabella S. Tennant in an apparent strangulation in late August, while a friend faces an indictment accusing him of helping to dispose of the girl's dead body in a stolen trash can.
John R. Freeman Jr., 16, of Sixth Street, pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and tampering with physical evidence.
Tyler S. Best, 18, of Barnard Street, Buffalo, pleaded not guilty to tampering with physical evidence and first-degree hindering prosecution.
Best was arraigned first and left the courtroom before Freeman was brought in. Both answered only yes or no to questions during the brief appearance, although Freeman also was asked for his date of birth and address.
Judge Matthew J. Murphy III denied bail for both teens, who already had been held in the Niagara County Jail without bail, as ordered at their first appearance in Niagara Falls City Court.
Freeman faces a maximum sentence of 25 year to life in prison if he is convicted. Best faces a maximum sentence of seven years behind bars.
Three women who were friends or relatives of the dead girl were in court but declined to speak to reporters, as did about seven people who were there for the defendants.
Murphy also issued a gag order, barring attorneys from discussing anything but scheduling with the media.
However, he refused a request from Best's attorney, James J. Faso Jr., to close the courtroom on the grounds that both defendants are eligible for youthful offender status. He also permitted the presence of photographers and TV cameramen.
"This is a case of public interest," Murphy said.
Deputy District Attorney Holly E. Sloma had no objection to the gag order, "given the nature of the case and the ongoing nature of the investigation."
Isabella was killed on the night of Aug. 26 in the home of her great-grandparents, Sharon and Hank Lascelle, on Sixth Street, a short distance from Freeman's home.
Freeman, who turns 17 Thursday, was regarded as a family friend trustworthy enough that Sharon Lascelle felt able to go to bed and leave Isabella in his care, the great-grandmother told investigators.
Freeman reportedly said the girl "wouldn't go to sleep. She wouldn't stop crying."
Best, who had lived with the Freemans for about a year, told police that Freeman told him he had killed Isabella and needed help to dispose of the body.
Police said the pair stole a wheeled garbage tote from a neighboring home, placed the body inside, and wheeled the can around the area looking for a place to leave it. The girl's body was found in the trash can in an alley between Third and Fourth streets.
The girl's mother, Crystal Walker of Cheektowaga, who did not attend the arraignment, had left Isabella with her great-grandparents while she worked at a bar on nearby Niagara Street in Niagara Falls.
The Lascelles called police the next morning to report the child missing. Shortly thereafter, Best came to Police Headquarters with his mother and led officers to the alley where the trash can was left. In the meantime, the can's owner had called police to report it stolen.
Freeman's attorney, Robert Viola, has said he wants to try to get Murphy to suppress Freeman's statement to police. Murphy ordered both defendants' statements sealed.
Sloma, who is prosecuting the case with Deputy District Attorney Doreen M. Hoffman, turned over 3 DVDs to the defense, which will have to file motions to obtain copies of other evidence.
Best is to appear in court Dec. 6 for a pretrial hearing with Faso, who is representing him as a member of the county's conflict defender staff.
Viola, who was privately retained, asked for two weeks to clarify some issues relating to his representation of Freeman. Murphy told him to report back to court Oct. 18. No trial date for either defendant has been set.
email: tprohaska@buffnews.com