No witnesses to murder of NY firefighter at crowded New Year’s party

Justin Speights was stabbed to death during a New Year’s Eve house party attended by about 200 people, but nearly a month later, police still don’t have a suspect.

The 20-year-old volunteer firefighter died in the first minutes of 2016 at the gathering in Crawford, N.Y., a town of 9,200 about a 90-minute drive north of New York City. The killing shattered the revelry on an unseasonably warm night, when cars lined the street, drinks flowed and friends and strangers toasted 2016.

“I remember his eyes were closed and his nose was bleeding, like he’d been punched.”

– Friend of Justin Speights

“I heard, ‘Justin’s been stabbed,’” one partygoer, who saw only the aftermath and asked not to be named, told “I remember his eyes were closed and his nose was bleeding, like he’d been punched.

“I thought he was already dead,” he added.

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New York State Police vehicles parked outside the murder scene.

(Photo courtesy of Times Herald-Record)

Speights, who was an honor student and football star at nearby Pine Bush High School just a few years earlier, had been involved in a melee in the backyard. Authorities believe the 6-foot, 1-inch and powerfully built Speights was trying to break it up.

Witnesses heard angry words and saw punches thrown, but no one claims to have seen the flash of a lethal blade.

As word spread, frantic attendees placed Speights on a hot tub inside the garage and administered chest compressions, the man said. Others called for help inside the two-story home, he said.

In the panic and chaos, the party abruptly ended, the house emptied and a killer slipped away.

The 911 call was made at 12:45 a.m. and the first EMTs arrived at the scene at 1:08 a.m., authorities said. Speights was pronounced dead at Orange Regional Medical Center at 1:55 a.m.

Since the killing, authorities have conducted 230 interviews and followed up on 300 leads, New York State Police Maj. Joseph Tripodo told Another 10 to 15 people who were confirmed to have been at the party will be questioned by law enforcement in the near future, he said.

Police are reviewing cellphone video from the party, but Tripodo did not say if the footage included the fatal fight. So far, no suspect has been named, and State Police have offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to the killer. Tripodo declined to say if a murder weapon was recovered.

“Our focus right now is the homicide investigation,” he said.

As police comb through evidence and conduct more interviews, friends and co-workers are mourning Speights and seeking justice in their own ways.

“When you hear someone is loved by everyone, you always kind of roll your eyes,” his friend said. “But Justin was loved by everyone. He was a peacemaker.”

The police reward has been matched by the Silver Lake Fire District, where Speight, who as a boy would don fire gear and ride his bike to fires, had begun volunteering at age 16.

Fire Chief Joe Morstatt said an incident last April showed Speights’ character. Away from the firehouse when an alarm came in, Speights, in full uniform, summoned a taxi and joined his colleagues at the blaze.

“He didn’t have a lot of money, either,” Morstatt said. “He will be missed, for sure.”

At his funeral, Speights was remembered as humble and hardworking, dedicated to helping out his community and fellow firefighters and a fan of the NFL’s New York Giants.

Before playing its final game on Jan. 3, the football team paid a tribute to Speights that included star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. hoisting a photo of the young man with the words, “Rest In Peace Justin Speights.”

Edmund DeMarche is a news editor for Follow him on Twitter @EDeMarche.

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