WEBSTER, N.Y. – A 15-year-old boy charged with dousing his home with gasoline and setting it ablaze had a tumultuous relationship with his adoptive father, who was killed along with the boy's two brothers, classmates said Thursday.
Michael Pilato's father, Carmen, often yelled at his children and occasionally smacked them, said Sonny Mottler, who described himself as Michael Pilato's best friend since fourth grade.
"If Mike made a mistake, he made a really bad one," the 15-year-old Mottler said. "I know a warm-hearted Mike, not a cold-blooded killer."
Mottler and other classmates spoke after a brief hearing in which a public defender was appointed to represent Pilato, a high school sophomore, on charges of murder and arson. He is being charged as an adult. If convicted, he could draw up to 15 years to life in prison.
The two-story home in a middle-class section of Webster in suburban Rochester was doused with gasoline and torched at around 1 a.m. Wednesday. Killed were Pilato's 71-year-old father, Carmen, and brothers, 16-year-old Peter and 12-year-old Joshua. He was arrested later that morning.
His mother, Elaine, and his 13-year-old sister, Elizabeth, escaped with injuries but remained hospitalized Thursday.
The classmates said Pilato seemed downcast but didn't display any acute signs of anger or distress in the days leading up to the fire.
"Him and Carmen had their issues, but he's not the type to do this," said Crystal Bailey, 16. "He was acting perfectly fine. He was texting normally. He wasn't acting weird at all and then this happened. It's such a shocker. He was the most loving, caring person in the world."
Carmen Pilato, a retired construction worker, had remarried and adopted several children after his biological children were grown.
Mottler said his friend was "really depressed lately" but wouldn't confide in him.
"He was candid with all these problems before — we've talked and I felt he could get through anything," he said. "But this time, he wouldn't open to me. I assumed he knew what he was doing, and he had it under control."
When they last talked Monday, "he was down in the dumps," Mottler said. "He seemed in a bad mood, like he had something on his mind. I feel like he was trying to leave (home)."
About three hours after the fire, Mottler said he got a 4 a.m. cellphone call from Pilato but didn't pick up.
"I wish I answered," Mottler said. "Now I'm just full of questions."
Authorities have declined to say when or where Pilato was taken into custody. Webster police said they had been called to the residence several times in the last year to investigate "missing person situations" but declined to elaborate.
Mottler said Pilato got in trouble recently for driving off in his mother's car and said police briefly detained them last summer for firing a BB gun in the woods.
"They thought we were shooting at a house; we were actually shooting at a deer," he said.
"I've known Mike for so many years. I'm going to miss him," Mottler said. "I'm always here for him no matter what."