Victims' relatives furious as club owners plead no contest

Saturday, September 30, 2006

WARWICK, R.I. -- Enraged that no one will see more than four years in prison for the 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people, victims' relatives vented their fury Friday at a judge as he accepted plea deals from the club's owners in the name of avoiding a graphic, heart-wrenching trial.

Michael Derderian received four years behind bars and his brother, Jeffrey, got no prison time at all after they pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The fire, sparked by a rock group's pyrotechnics, quickly engulfed The Station nightclub because the Derderians had installed highly flammable foam on the walls to ease neighbors' noise concerns.

Judge Francis Darigan admonished the victims' relatives not to try to talk him out of the plea deals. But many of them bitterly ignored the warning in a sentencing so turbulent that the judge abruptly recessed the proceedings at one point to defuse the tension in the room.

"Lady Justice in Rhode Island is blind, but she's also deaf," Jay McLaughlin, a relative of two of the victims, told the judge. Other family members applauded as he returned to his seat.

"Before I read my statement, I'd like to just say I will address you, but I will not say 'Your Honor.' I don't think you're an honorable man. I don't respect you," said Annmarie Swidwa, the mother of 25-year-old Bridget Sanetti.

Victims' families were angry not only over the sentences but because they believed a trial would have told them more about how and why their loved ones died.

The judge refused to reconsider the plea deals, saying they would spare the victims and all of Rhode Island from having to "relive the moments of this tragedy" through graphic images and descriptions, and that it would "avoid an extremely lengthy, costly and heartrending trial whose outcome was uncertain."

"I understand how you feel about this case," the judge told family members. "My greatest regret, however, most sincere regret, is that this criminal justice system cannot give you the relief you seek."

Prosecutors said they objected to the sentences and urged prison time for both men. Defense lawyer Kathleen Hagerty has said prosecutors offered the terms during negotiations, but Darigan took responsibility for the deal Friday.

Gov. Don Carcieri also criticized the sentences. "Nobody who witnessed today's emotional testimony could believe that the punishment fit the crime," he said in a statement.

Shortly before the judge imposed the sentence, Jeffrey Derderian -- a 39-year-old former television reporter who was there that night while a TV cameraman filmed footage for a story on safety in public places -- tearfully apologized for the heartache he had caused and recounted the chaotic scene.

"The fire moved so fast. I was scared. I wish I did a better job," he said. "There are many days that I wish I didn't make it out of that building, because if I didn't maybe some of these families would feel better."

He added: "I know you would have liked it if I died, too."

Michael Derderian, 45, who until Friday had not spoken publicly about the fire, also apologized. "We will do everything we can so that every question can be answered -- so that all the facts, not just some of them come out," he said.

The brothers said they did not know the foam was flammable.

"If I had known now what that foam was, we definitely would have done things differently," Michael Derderian said. "We would have never ever put our patrons, our employees, our families and our friends at risk."

Michael Derderian was led from the courtroom in handcuffs. His brother and other family members followed him out a side door.

The brothers wept during testimony from some of the more than two dozen relatives of victims who took the stand to recount how their lives have changed since the Feb. 20, 2003 blaze in West Warwick.

The sentencing began in memorial fashion, with the lights dimmed and a screen flashing the photographs of each of the 100 people who died, while a clerk read their names out loud. Then, one by one, more than two dozen relatives of those who died took the stand to recount how their lives have changed since the tragedy.

The judge warned the victims not to go beyond the emotional toll and offer their opinions about the legal process or the plea bargain, saying "this is not a public hearing, it's not a rally." But many still tried to persuade him not to accept the deal.

"I know you can do better, and I'm asking you to," said Susan Howorth-Pritchard, whose brother died in the fire. "It's the right thing to do."

Claire Bruyere said her daughter Bonnie Hamelin was now in a place where "there is no corruption or negligence."

"She was let down by the system, state and even me. I can't reassure her that someone was held responsible for her death," Bruyere said. She, too, was applauded.

Both defendants also received three years' probation. In addition, Jeffrey Derderian was sentenced to 500 hours of community service.

Michael Derderian received the harsher sentence because he bought the foam.

The fire -- the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history -- broke out during a concert by the heavy-metal rock band Great White, quickly consuming the one-story wooden building 13 miles south of Providence. More than 200 people were injured, and many of those killed became trapped and died at the doorways, overcome by fumes and smoke.

The Derderians' lawyer has said Great White did not have permission to set off the pyrotechnics, something the band denies.

The fire prompted an overhaul of Rhode Island's fire codes, a wave of lawsuits and criminal charges against the Derderians and former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele.

Biechele was sentenced in May to four years in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter for setting off the pyrotechnics.

The Derderians pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter for installing flammable foam that violated the fire code.

A federal lawsuit filed by nearly 300 people who were injured or lost loved ones is pending.

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