Questions in R.I. nightclub fire remain unanswered
By ERIC TUCKER The Associated Press | September 23,2006
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The trials of Jeffrey and Michael Derderian would have spanned months and involved mounds of exhibits, hundreds of witnesses and graphic testimony about the fire at The Station nightclub that killed 100 people more than three years ago.
But the decision by the Derderians to plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter charges concludes the criminal cases surrounding the fire, erasing the prospect of a trial and leaving victims' relatives with a laundry list of questions they fear may never get answered.
"Now, a lot of things won't come out that should have come out," said Leland Hoisington, whose daughter, Abbie, 28, was among those killed in the Feb. 20, 2003 fire, which was sparked by a pyrotechnics display for the rock band Great White.
For one, there's the question of why local fire inspectors who visited the club before the blaze cited the West Warwick building for multiple hazards — but not the flammable foam around the stage that ignited and spread the flames.
Some families want to know why the West Warwick fire marshal agreed to increase the capacity of the club in 1999 and again in 2000, that time at the request of Michael Derderian, according to court documents.
"Why was that building operable?" asked Dave Kane, whose 18-year-old son, Nicholas O'Neill, was the youngest victim of the fire. "Why did the building inspectors and the fire marshals of that town not close it down?"
A trial could have also settled conflicting accounts about whether Great White had permission to use the explosives. The band's ex-tour manager says he had permission from Michael Derderian, a statement accepted by prosecutors. The Derderians, who owned the club, have said the band never had approval.
The Derderians and former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele were the only three people charged, though victims' families thought others — including town fire inspectors and individual band members — should have been charged, too.
Those people could have been subjected to blistering questioning on the witness stand, potentially providing revealing testimony about what led to the fourth-deadliest nightclub in U.S. history.
"We don't get our justice at all," Kane said.
In exchange for their pleas, to be entered next week, Michael Derderian will receive four years in prison and his brother will avoid prison with a 10-year suspended sentence. Michael Derderian will also receive 11 years suspended and three years probation. Jeffrey will get three years probation and 500 hours of community service.
Biechele pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter last February and was sentenced to four years in prison.
Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan said he decided to accept the Derderians' pleas in hopes of resolving the case and sparing the victims' families from having to relive the fire through a lengthy, heart-rending trial that he said would include disturbing video and photos.
But those comments angered some family members, who believe the judge had no right to intervene in the process.
Kane said it's not the judge's place to shield families from pain.
"He's not a therapist, he's a judge," Kane said. "And if I have a problem, I shut off the TV, I don't read a newspaper, I take a couple of Excedrin and sing 'Kumbaya' or something."
Richard Lapierre, whose son, Keith, died in the fire, said he almost threw up at the news and hadn't slept for the last two nights. He said he wanted a trial to find out what happened.
"So if the judge thinks he did us a favor, he made things worse," Lapierre said.
Jury selection began earlier this month in Michael Derderian's trial, which was expected to last through the fall. Jeffrey Derderian was to have been tried later.
Though the criminal cases are resolved, additional information will still be available through ongoing civil litigation in federal court. The Derderians were among dozens sued, though they are shielded from liability after filing for bankruptcy protection.
In a letter he wrote to victims' families announcing the pleas, Attorney General Patrick Lynch said he was in the process of identifying evidence collected during the investigation that could be released to the public. Lynch spokesman Michael Healey said the attorney general planned to file a motion with the court soon asking that testimony before the grand jury that investigated the case be publicly released.
James Gahan, who lost his son, Jimmy, and is a plaintiff in the civil case, said that as the father of a victim, he has been given ample information about the fire. But he wants what he knows to be broadly accessible.
"We pretty much know what went on, between investigations done by the attorney general's office and lawyers for the civil case," he said. "We're pretty satisfied. There might be a few little blanks to fill in.
"But I think the people of Rhode Island really deserved to know, and hopefully that evidence can be released now to the public."