Nightclub owners will plead no contest in fire that killed 100, lawyer says

Wednesday, September 20th 2006, 9:13 pm
By: News On 6

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) _ The owners of a nightclub where a 2003 fire killed 100 people will plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter charges, and only one will have to serve prison time, their lawyer said Wednesday. Victims' relatives were outraged.

Kathleen Hagerty said brothers Jeffrey and Michael Derderian will enter the pleas more than 3 1/2 years after pyrotechnics ignited foam soundproofing as a 1980s heavy metal band started playing at The Station nightclub.

Hagerty confirmed that Michael Derderian will serve 4 years in a minimum security prison, with eligibility for a work release program, and that Jeffrey Derderian will receive a suspended 10-year sentence.

Relatives of those killed were furious about what they considered to be light punishments for the brothers' role in the fourth-deadliest fire in U.S. history, a tragedy that touched untold thousands of people in the nation's smallest state.

``I can't believe the attorney general is just going to stand by and say OK to this,'' said Diane Mattera, whose 29-year-old daughter, Tammy Mattera-Housa, died in the fire.

Hagerty confirmed the pleas after WJAR-TV and The Providence Journal reported on a letter Attorney General Patrick Lynch wrote to families of those killed to announce the plea deal. A spokesman for Lynch did not immediately return phone messages seeking comment; media reported that Lynch was making calls to family members Wednesday night.

Lynch says in the letter that he objects to the sentences that Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan has said he will give the Derderians.

``Most significantly, I strongly disagree with the Court's intention to sentence Jeffrey Derderian to less than jail,'' he wrote. He added, however, that the plea deals mean the brothers are accepting criminal responsibility ``despite months of denials.''

The Derderians will change their pleas Sept. 29 and will be sentenced once relatives of those killed have a chance to present victim impact statements, according to the letter.

Many relatives of victims, including Robert Bruyere, whose stepdaughter, Bonnie Hamelin, died in the fire, said they learned about the plea from news reports.

Lynch ``better hope I don't see him in person, because I'll be in jail,'' Bruyere said in a telephone interview as his wife, Claire, sobbed in the background.

The plea comes as jury selection was under way for Michael Derderian's criminal trial; his brother's trial was to have followed.

``All I can say is that Jeffrey and Michael Derderian are looking to put a resolution to this and to avoid any further pain to any of the victims' families or survivors of the tragedy,'' Hagerty said.

She said Michael Derderian is to receive a tougher sentence than his brother because he is the one who bought the foam.

The fire on Feb. 20, 2003, at the West Warwick nightclub began when pyrotechnics used by the band Great White ignited flammable soundproofing foam placed around the stage.

The flames quickly spread to foam that lined the walls and ceiling, enveloping the one-story wooden building in moments and trapping concertgoers. A guitarist for the band was among those killed, and more than 200 people were injured.

Images and sounds of people scrambling to get out as dark smoke spread through the club were broadcast around the world. The footage was taken by a television cameraman at the club for a story on safety in public places being reported by Jeffrey Derderian, who then worked for a Providence TV station.

In May, former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele was sentenced to four years in prison for igniting the pyrotechnics without the required permit. He pleaded guilty in February to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

The Derderians have each pleaded not guilty to 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter _ two counts for each person killed under separate legal theories. A count of involuntary manslaughter in Rhode Island carries up to 30 years in prison.

Hagerty said her clients will plead no contest to charges stemming from a legal theory that accuses them of committing a misdemeanor _ installing flammable foam in violation of the state fire code _ that led to the victims' deaths.

Aside from the prison time, Michael Derderian will receive an 11-year suspended sentence and three years' probation, while Jeffrey Derderian will get three years' probation and 500 hours of community service along with his suspended sentence, Hagerty said.

Prosecutors say the Derderians showed a pattern of poor management and dangerous decisions, including installing the highly flammable polyurethane foam in violation of the state fire code and allowing bands to use pyrotechnics as part of their acts. They also say the Derderians did several things that made it harder to evacuate the club.

The Derderians have said the band never had permission for the pyrotechnics, but band members contend they did. The brothers' lawyers have also said they were never told the foam violated the fire code.

The Derderians and dozens of other defendants have been sued in federal court by fire survivors and relatives of those killed. The brothers, who have filed for bankruptcy, also have been fined $1.07 million for failing to carry the required workers' compensation insurance _ a penalty they are appealing.

Many victims' family members have angrily criticized how Lynch, who is running for re-election in November, has handled the case.

Chris Fontaine, whose son, Mark, died in the fire, said she was particularly upset because she and other victims' relatives learned of the deal from reporters. She said the same thing happened when Biechele's plea deal was announced, but Lynch had assured her that would not happen again.

``It's unconscionable,'' Fontaine said. ``There's been absolutely no thought or consideration for the people that have been left behind, and there are a lot of us.''