Fire Victims’ Families Decry R.I. Nightclub Owners’ Pleas

September 21, 2006

Relatives of the 100 people killed in a 2003 Warwick, Rhode Island nightclub fire sparked by a rock band’s pyrotechnics reacted with fury Wednesday to news that the club owners would plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter charges, and that one of the men would avoid prison.

For family members still upset that only three men were charged in the fire, the pleas from Jeffrey and Michael Derderian mark the latest stinging disappointment in the criminal case stemming from a deadly blaze that shrouded the tiniest state in the nation with grief.

“From the beginning it’s been a farce,” said John Richmond, whose daughter, Kelly Vieira, 40, died from the fire. “I was hoping it wasn’t going to happen,” he added.

Michael Derderian will be sentenced to serve four years in prison, said their lawyer, Kathleen Hagerty. Jeffrey Derderian will be spared from prison altogether, receiving a suspended 10-year sentence, with three years probation and 500 hours of community service.

They are scheduled to change their pleas on Sept. 29, according to a letter from Attorney General Patrick Lynch.

The pleas eliminate the chance for a criminal trial since a third defendant, the rock band tour manager whose pyrotechnics ignited the fire, pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter earlier this year and is serving a four-year prison term. Some family members said they were upset there would never be a trial to answer unresolved questions they have about the fire.

Jury selection began earlier this month in Michael Derderian’s trial. Jeffrey Derderian’s trial was to have begun later.

The fire on Feb. 20, 2003, at The Station nightclub in West Warwick began when pyrotechnics used by the heavy metal band Great White ignited foam placed as soundproofing around the stage. The flames quickly spread, enveloping the one-story wooden building in moments and trapping concertgoers.

Both brothers were charged with 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter _ two counts for each person killed under separate legal theories. A count of involuntary manslaughter carries up to 30 years in prison.

“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 told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Hagerty said Michael Derderian was receiving a stiffer sentence than his brother because he was the one who purchased the foam.

Michael Healey, a spokesman for Attorney General Patrick Lynch, said Lynch spent Wednesday calling victims’ families to tell them the news. He said the reactions had been a mix of anguish, shock and disappointment.

Lynch also wrote a letter dated Wednesday to families of those killed to inform them of the pleas. He said 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,” the letter said. He added, however, that the plea deals mean the brothers are accepting criminal responsibility “despite months of denials.”

The brothers are pleading no contest to hanging flammable soundproofing foam in the club, used to quell neighbors’ complaints about noise coming from the building. Prosecutors say the Derderians repeatedly allowed overcrowding, permitted other bands to use pyrotechnics, maintained poorly lit exit signs and a door that swung the wrong way.

In May, former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele was sentenced to four years in prison for igniting the pyrotechnics without the required permit. Great White was a Grammy-nominated heavy metal band that made its name in the 1980s.

Some victims’ relatives walked angrily out of the courtroom after Biechele was sentenced.

Even so, the Derderians continue to bear the brunt of anger from victims’ relatives who see them as stingy club owners who ignored safety considerations at the expense of the bottom line.

“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.

James Gahan, who lost his 21-year-old son, Jimmy, said he was relieved there wouldn’t be a trial, but said he was troubled that Jeffrey Derderian would not serve prison time. He said he would be not be satisfied until he sees how much of the blame the Derderians accept during their sentencing hearing.

“I have no idea what their words are going to be,” Gahan said. “I suppose I’ll withhold any judgment until then.”

More than 200 people were injured in the fire. The victims were mostly from Rhode Island, and many residents in this tiny state know someone who was killed or injured or one of their family members. The victims included teachers, waiters and college students, as well as four club employees and Ty Longley, Great White’s guitarist.

Lynch is running for re-election in November. He had been in office for just a few weeks when the fire happened, and many victims’ family members have angrily criticized how he handled the case. Several were unhappy that only three people were charged, saying the town fire inspectors who failed to cite the Derderians for the flammable foam and individual band members should have also been held responsible.

Robert Bruyere, whose stepdaughter, Bonnie Hamelin, died in the fire, said he learned about the plea on the evening news and had not yet heard from the attorney general.

“He better hope I don’t see him in person, because I’ll be in jail,” he said in a telephone interview as his wife, Claire, sobbed in the background.

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