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Inside the mind of a teenage killer

Updated: Friday, January 3 2014, 01:28 PM EST

What Pilato was thinking

Rochester, N.Y. --- What was going through the mind of 15 year-old Michael Pilato in December 2011 when he set fire to his family’s Cardile Drive home in Webster? 

The answer to that question became relevant at Pilato’s trial in June when his lawyers mounted a defense based on “Extreme Emotional Disturbance” at the time of the crimes.  The defense would have allowed jurors to consider lesser charges.

Instead the jury convicted Pilato on all counts of arson, assault, and murder.  At trial evidence showed that Pilato poured gasoline on the stairs and hallways of his home and lit the place on fire while his family slept.  His sister and mother escaped from the home.  His father and two brothers died inside.

Pilato was sentenced to 15 years to Life in prison and 13WHAM News has now exclusively obtained a videotaped interview that was played for the jury at his trial.  The interview is with Dr. R.P. Singh, a forensic psychiatrist hired by Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley to assess Pilato and this claim of “Extreme Emotional Disturbance.”

The Interview

"I probably just, all the anger all the emotion built up that was my way of releasing it," said Pilato when asked why he did what he did.  "My home like was just chaos every day I don't really have a fun time."

The interview took place over the course of two days in August and September 2012.  In it a noticeably heavier Pilato with facial hair and wearing a jail-issued sweatshirt can be seen sitting at a table in an interview room.  

The conversation covered a wide variety of topics including Pilato’s relationship with his parents, siblings, and friends.  The doctor also questioned Pilato’s use of drugs and he claimed he experimented with cocaine at the age of 12, used numerous prescription drugs, and drank alcohol but it wasn’t his preference.

“Pot,” was how Pilato answered when asked about his drug of choice.  When asked he said he was “trying to” smoke marijuana every day.  In fact, the morning before Pilato set that fire he was angry because his parents took the bong he used to smoke marijuana.

“I was angry because they found my bong, my dad found my bong and he threw it out on me," Pilato told the psychiatrist.  The psychiatrist then asked if there was anything else on his mind at the time and Pilato answered, “That was mostly it; I was sort of pissed about that.”

The doctor asked what Pilato thought would happen when he set the fire and the response was, “I wasn't (thinking) I tried not to get my mind to that point because I figured if I did I probably wouldn't have done it."

“I was trying to keep my mind set like alright I'm going to do this, let's do this and get it over with," Pilato continued.  "Before I left I was thinking about whether I should stay or run and when I lit the fire and saw the flames I was thinking about just staying in that house with them but I just, I didn't think I could take that pain."

Dr. Singh followed up by asking, “But you decide that you let them (family) go through the pain, right?” 

“I had no other choice,” Pilato replied.  “I couldn't run upstairs I mean I started the fire when I was downstairs.  I wasn't going to run through flames, I'm not dumb."

The argument for “Extreme Emotional Disturbance” was often explained in court as a time when the defendant “just snaps” and doesn’t display the thought process others would in that circumstance.

In this interview Pilato often repeats phrases that could be perceived as fitting that description. 

"I don't know I guess I just snapped,” he said on one occasion.  “I just, I just lost control."

Yet the psychiatrist’s interview also reveals Pilato’s very clear understanding of the consequences to his actions.

“Why is it that you avoided not to think of the consequences?” was one question Pilato was asked.

“Because I was just trying to keep my mind on I wasn't going to get caught," Pilato replied.  “Because I did not want to go to jail."

The psychiatrist asked, “You were concerned that you would go to jail, for what?”

“For killing," Pilato replied.

Pilato’s Appeal is Pending

A notice of appeal was filed by Pilato shortly after the jury’s verdict and the judge’s sentence a month later.  Representing Pilato in the appeal is attorney Joseph Waldorf who said it is far too early for him to discuss a specific strategy or approach that he plans to take in the appeal.

Waldorf said the trial transcripts are still being assembled and he’ll have to review those closely before preparing the appeal.  He added that the weight and quality of evidence presented for, or against, “Extreme Emotional Disturbance” is certainly something that could be scrutinized.

Waldorf believes his appeal could also take a close look at how the criminal justice system treats juvenile offenders such as Pilato.  He was just 15 years-old at the time of these crimes and his conviction still carries with it a possible life sentence.  Waldorf said that more and more cases are demonstrating the potential problems with prosecuting juveniles as adults for serious crimes like those involved in this case.

The Pilato Family

Throughout his trial Michael Pilato had a source of unwavering support in the form of his mother, Elaine Pilato.  Even after the trial she stood by her son and maintained he had to be under the influence of an “Extreme Emotional Disturbance”

After the verdict Elaine Pilato showed 13WHAM News the renovated family home and the bedroom she set aside for her son Michael when, and if, he is ever released from prison.  Pilato’s sister, Elizabeth, is also living in the home.

Elaine Pilato, who was a victim in this case along with Elizabeth, told 13WHAM News that she believes her son was under the influence of synthetic drugs the night he set fire to the family home.  She has also expressed her concerns with how the criminal justice system has dealt with her son’s case. 

"My son is worth saving,” she told 13WHAM News days after the jury’s verdict.  "If my son could come home tonight I would sleep better. I am not afraid of him."

Other members of the Pilato family feel quite differently.  Extended family, biological children, and others have expressed relief in the jury’s verdict and the possibility that Michael Pilato may never walk free again.

“I don't believe he can be rehabilitated, I don't believe you can be after you killed 3 people,” said Angel Pilato-Shuman the daughter of Carmen Pilato hours after the jury read the guilty verdict.  “We're hoping this never happens again." 

Some members of the Pilato family insist that only Elaine Pilato remains supportive of Michael.

Inside the mind of a teenage killer

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