R.I. nightclub owners plead no contest

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WARWICK, R.I. -- Angry relatives of concertgoers killed in a horrific 2003 nightclub fire sparked by a band's pyrotechnics begged a judge Friday to change his mind about plea deals for two brothers who owned the venue.

"Lady Justice in Rhode Island is blind, but she's also deaf," testified Jay McLaughlin, the brother-in-law of victims Sandy and Michael Hoogasian. Other family members applauded as he returned to his seat.

The relatives' testimony -- which often deviated from the judge's warnings to cover only the fire's effect on their lives and not the plea or legal issues -- lasted for several hours before Jeffrey and Michael Derderian were sentenced.

Judge Francis Darigan, wanting to avoid a long and heart-wrenching trial, said as the hearing began that he would not reconsider the deals, which will give Jeffrey Derderian no prison time and his brother four years behind bars. They pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter Friday afternoon shortly before they were expected to be sentenced.

Still, many family members tried to change the judge's mind.

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

After the relatives had testified for about two hours, 39-year-old Jeffrey Derderian was slumped in his seat, choking back tears. Earlier, his lawyer took off her glasses, dabbed at her eyes and sobbed. Michael, 45, began to cry when family friend Jody King spoke of his brother, a club bouncer who died in the fire.

The fast-moving club fire -- one of the deadliest in U.S. history -- began when the rock band's pyrotechnics ignited foam that the Derderian brothers had put up for soundproofing. One hundred people were killed, including many who were trapped and died at the doorways, overcome by fumes and smoke. More than 200 people were injured.

Although he will not be sentenced to serve prison time, Jeff Derderian is expected to get a suspended sentence with probation and 500 hours of community service.

At the start of Friday's hearing, lights were dimmed and a voice recited the names of the dead, as video screens displayed photographs, each with a name, age and hometown.

Then began the testimony by their relatives, many of whom had wanted far stiffer punishments as well as a trial, where they could find out more about how and why their loved ones died.

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 was applauded as she finished her statement.

The Derderians will also have an opportunity to address the judge before sentencing.

The flames and toxic fumes that broke out in The Station club during the concert by the 1980s band Great White on Feb. 20, 2003, quickly consumed the one-story wooden building in West Warwick, 13 miles south of Providence.

The fire, the fourth-deadliest nightclub blaze in U.S. history, prompted an overhaul of Rhode Island's fire codes, a tide 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 igniting the stage explosives.

Once the Derderians enter their pleas and are sentenced, criminal charges against all three defendants will have been resolved without any of the men going to trial.

Michael Derderian will receive the harsher sentence because he purchased the foam, defense attorney Kathleen Hagerty said. She has said the brothers were not warned the material was dangerous or violated the fire code.

The brothers will plead no contest to a theory of involuntary manslaughter accusing them of committing a misdemeanor -- installing flammable foam that violated the fire code -- that led to the deaths. The foam was used after neighbors complained about the club's loud music.

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