Station nightclub owners sentenced for their role in fatal 2003 fire

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Friday, December 8, 2006

Owners of the Station nightclub in West Warwick were sentenced Friday for their role in the 2003 fire that killed 100 people and injured countless others. Brothers Michael and Jeffrey Derderian pled no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, preventing the case from going to trial and leaving survivors and victims’ families questioning the efficacy of the criminal justice system.

Michael Derderian will serve four years of a 15-year sentence for his role in the worst fire in Rhode Island history. The remainder of his sentence is suspended pending the successful completion of a three-year probation. Jeffrey Derderian received a 10-year suspended sentence and will not serve jail time, instead getting three years of probation and 500 hours of community service. Jeffrey Derderian was at the club on Feb. 20, 2003, the night of the fire.

Michael Derderian’s sentence mirrors the sentence handed down in May to Dan Biechele, the tour manager for rock band Great White, who played at the Station that night. Biechele set off pyrotechnics during the band’s set and sparks from the display caught fire, engulfing the entire club in less than three minutes because of flammable polyurethane foam covering the walls. Even though the foam was a direct violation of the state fire code, it had gone uncited in several inspections prior to the fire.

In court, victims’ families and survivors were allowed to read impact statements before Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan handed down the sentences. Darigan repeatedly reminded families that their statements would not alter his decisions on the terms of the plea agreements and that the statements should be reflections on victims and survivors, not on the Derderians or other figures in the case.

Diane Mattera, who lost her daughter, Tammy Mattera-Housa, in the Station fire, reacted to Jeffrey Derderian’s sentence: “He could have served his community by not packing more than 400 people into his -,” at which point Darigan interrupted Mattera and asked her to read only parts of her statement not directed at the defendants or at the disposition of the trial.

Speaking directly with the judge, Eileen DiBonaventura, who lost her 18-year-old son Albert Anthony, acknowledged that what happened in 2003 was not premeditated mass murder but said, “When the defendants play Russian roulette with people’s lives on a continuous basis, it is no accident.”

A controversial agreementThe nature of the Derderians’ plea agreement and the role Attorney General Patrick Lynch ’87’s office played in reaching that agreement has angered victims’ family members, some of whom claim a plea agreement leaves many unanswered questions surrounding the night of the fire.

In a letter to victims’ families, Darigan wrote, “Resolution of these cases was desirable under appropriate circumstances, not only to avoid an extremely lengthy, costly and heart-rending trial whose outcome was uncertain, but because it is in the best interest of all parties concerned with these cases.”

In court, Darigan defended his decision against the objection of Assistant Attorney General William Ferland. According to Darigan, 140 potential jurors requested excusal from sitting on a jury for the Derderians’ case.

Mike Healey, spokesman for Lynch, denied that the agreement was reached through the attorney general’s office despite Darigan’s letter to families stating otherwise. Healey said Lynch objects to both the length of the sentences and the fact that no public trial will occur.

“The criminal justice system is simply not equipped to provide emotional closure,” Healey said.

In response to anger from family members, Lynch made personal calls to families once knowledge of the plea agreement was leaked anonymously from his office Sept. 20. According to Healey, Lynch had spoken with 75 of the 100 victims’ families as of Sept. 27.

The campaign for Bill Harsch, a Providence attorney and Lynch’s opponent in the November election, attacked Lynch for his handling of the Derderians’ case.

“Lynch is a buffoon, the plea deal was bogus,” wrote Harsch’s campaign manager, Tom Shevlin, in a Sept. 26 e-mail to Harsch; R.I. Republican Party Executive Director Jeffrey Deckman; John Clarke, a Republican candidate for State Senate in District 9 and Edward Morabito, owner of restaurant Cuban Revolution and a past chief of staff for former Republican Gov. Lincoln Almond.

“Lynch has not only demonstrated his own inability to conduct the attorney general’s office, but his own lack of judgment,” Harsch told The Herald. “He will throw professionals under the bus to protect himself politically.”

According to Harsch, the Derderian brothers chose which one of them would serve jail time.

“It was a tragedy, what happened in the courtroom on Friday,” Harsch said, calling the plea agreement “legally indefensible.” Harsch also criticized the limits imposed by Darigan on the victim impact statements. “He tied their hands a little too tightly,” Harsch said.

Lynch has announced his intention to seek a court order releasing 10 months of secret grand jury testimony regarding the Station nightclub fire in hopes that this testimony will answer some of the families’ questions. According to Healey, that process “won’t begin in earnest until next week, logistically. But we’re talking about a matter of weeks as opposed to months.”

The Station fire’s extended reachProfessor of Anthropology Richard Gould headed up a team of Brown students, faculty and local police, fire and safety workers charged with cataloguing evidence and remains at the Station site in the weeks after the fire. Gould’s group, Forensic Archaeology Recovery, also worked with the state fire marshal to repatriate items ranging from wedding rings to guitars back to family members.

All of Gould’s field notes were subpoenaed a month after the conclusion of his 11-day investigation and excavation.

Gould spoke with several families who watched FAR excavate the site from a makeshift memorial that still stands in West Warwick. When asked if he agreed with Darigan’s acceptance of the plea deals, Gould said, “Many families are going to have to relive this if it comes up in open court, but that’s their call.”

Among the many unanswered questions surrounding the fire is one figure central to the investigation who has yet to speak. Denis Larocque, the West Warwick fire inspector responsible for safety inspections of the Station nightclub, failed to note the flammable foam on numerous occasions and nearly doubled the legal capacity of the club in just a year’s time.

Over 450 people were inside the club on the night of the fire, according to the Providence Journal. The club’s official capacity was 300 people.

Larocque cannot be the subject of a criminal trial because of immunity granted by Rhode Island law to fire marshals and other officials unless the individual acted “in bad faith” or “with malice.”

“You can’t prosecute somebody for stupidity,” Healey said. According to Gould, his team did not find any evidence “that bore directly on Mr. Larocque.”

Harsch criticized the state’s handling of Larocque’s role in the Station fire and said the fire inspector acted “absolutely recklessly.” According to Harsch, firefighters view basic training videos that highlight the dangers of foam similar to the foam that covered the interior of the nightclub.

Larocque did not return messages left by The Herald.

Additionally, American Foam Corporation, the Johnston-based company that sold the Derderian brothers the foam, faces claims that it withheld safety information about the foam, including documents warning that it was flammable.

Aram Dermanouelian, owner of American Foam Corp., has denied the charges and told the Associated Press in 2003 that the Derderians could have purchased safer, flame-retardant foam but wanted “the lowest grade, the cheapest stuff.”

According to Healey, the state will not bring criminal charges against the foam company or Dermanouelian. “On the merits, evidence did not and still does not exist to satisfy standard of probable cause,” Healey said. American Foam Corp. has been named in multiple civil lawsuits filed by victims’ families.

Dermanouelian did not return phone calls from The Herald, and his attorney Tom Angeloni declined comment.

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