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  • Carl Z.
    Manager Sentenced for Rhode Island Nightclub Fire By PAM BELLUCK and MARIA NEWMAN Published: May
    Message 1 of 1 , May 11 4:32 AM
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      <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/10/us/10cnd-nightclub.html?>

      Manager Sentenced for Rhode Island Nightclub Fire

      By PAM BELLUCK and MARIA NEWMAN
      Published: May 10, 2006

      PROVIDENCE, R.I., May 10 — Daniel M. Biechele, the man who set off the
      pyrotechnics that ignited the catastrophic Rhode Island nightclub fire
      that killed 100 people, was sentenced today to four years in prison
      and three years' probation.

      Family members of victims on the final day of a sentencing trial for
      Daniel Biechele at Rhode Island Superior Court today.

      The sentence was less than half of the 10 years that prosecutors had
      requested but more than the community service that Mr. Biechele's
      lawyers asked for. Judge Francis J. Darigan Jr. said he considered Mr.
      Biechele's upstanding background and obvious remorse and the fact that
      his actions were "totally devoid of any criminal intent," in addition
      to the horrific result of the fire at the Station nightclub in West
      Warwick three years ago.

      "Mr. Biechele, the greatest sentence that can be imposed upon you has
      been imposed upon you by yourself, that is, having to live a lifetime
      knowing that your actions were a proximate cause of the death of 100
      innocent people," Judge Darigan said. "Any attempt by me or anyone
      else to correlate any sentence imposed with the value of these lives,
      or any other yardstick that may be applied, I believe would be a
      dishonor to the memory of the victims of this tragedy."

      Shortly before the sentence was pronounced, Mr. Biechele, 29, who was
      the tour manager for the heavy metal band Great White, which used the
      pyrotechnics in their performance, stood, sobbing, and spoke to the
      judge.

      "I don't know that I'll ever foregive myself for what happened that
      night, so I can't expect anybody else to," said Mr. Biechele, who had
      pleaded guilty in February to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter
      caused by a misdemeanor, the act of setting off pyrotechnics without a
      permit. "I can only pray that they understand that I would do anything
      to undo what happened that night and give them back their loved ones.
      I'm so sorry for what I've done."

      Families of some of the victims gasped and some broke into tears when
      the sentence was announced. One woman, Patricia Belanger, who lost her
      daughter, Dina DeMaio, a waitress at the Station, shouted at Mr.
      Biechele's mother: "How do you like your son now? Now you're going to
      feel the pain that I feel."

      Outside the courtroom, Ms. Belanger said the sentence was "a joke" and
      said of Mr. Biechele's mother, "she'll get her son in four years and
      they'll go back to being a happy family. What do we have?"

      Gerard Fontaine, whose son Mark was killed and daughter Melanie was
      injured, said, "One year for every 25 people that died - it's crazy.
      You can do what you want in Rhode Island and get away with it."

      But relatives of other victims thought the sentence appropriate.

      "I think it's a fair and just reaction," said Sarah Mancini, whose son
      Keith was killed. "He didn't set out to kill anybody. It was a
      horrendous accident."

      Many relatives of the victims had delivered emotional statements to
      the judge over two days about the anguish of their losses in a tragedy
      that touched so many in the tiny state.

      In his remarks, the judge said that he had heard "the virtual voice of
      Rhode Island lamenting the loss of 100 of its very talented, hard
      working and, yes, fun loving men and women."

      But he went on to explain that the sentence was meant to punish him
      for his criminal offense, "and not the results of your actions."

      "You and the victims' families will be forever mindful of that fatal
      night, and it is not within the power of this or any court to fashion
      a sentence reflective of the enormity of that tragedy," the judge
      said.

      Mr. Biechele put his head down as officers led him out of the courtroom.

      Mr. Biechele had addressed the court before the sentence was handed
      down, telling the judge and families of the victims that he was sorry
      for what had happened.

      Mr. Biechele, 29, was the tour manager for Great White on the night of
      Feb. 20, 2003, when he lit a pyrotechnics display that ignited
      flammable foam lining the walls and ceiling of the club in West
      Warwick, about 13 miles south of Providence.

      Patrick C. Lynch, the state attorney general, said today he was
      disappointed with the sentence.

      "I do not think that the sentence was quite as severe as it should
      have been," he told CourtTV.

      But he said the decision will not derail his office from prosecuting
      two others implicated in the nightclub fire, the brothers who owned
      the Station, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian. The two are accused of
      installing the flammable foam that fed the flames. They have pleaded
      not guilty to 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Michael
      Derderian is tentatively scheduled for trial on July 31; no trial date
      has been set for his brother.

      The fire was the deadliest in a nightclub in 25 years. Flames and
      toxic smoke quickly engulfed the club, and many of those who died were
      either overcome by the fumes or were unable to make their way through
      a logjam of fellow concertgoers who converged on the front door.

      "The devastation wrought by the conduct of the defendant is
      unparalleled in our state's history," Randall White, the assistant
      prosecutor, told the judge before he handed down his sentence.

      "The suffering is endless, and the extent and depth of the pain is
      bottomless," he said.

      Prosecutors had asked for the maximum sentence allowed under the deal
      they struck with Mr. Biechele in February when he pleaded guilty to
      100 counts of involuntary manslaughter — 10 years in prison.

      Mr. Biechele's lawyers had asked Judge Darigan to show mercy and
      sentence him to community service, saying his client never meant to
      harm anyone.

      "There is no question that the fire was an accident," said his lawyer,
      Thomas G. Briody. "Accidental death does not equal prison."

      The defense lawyers said Mr. Biechele was the only person to take
      responsibility for the fire and was truly remorseful, having
      hand-written letters of apology to the victims' families that will be
      given to them after his sentencing.

      "It takes courage for someone to say, I made a mistake," Mr. Briody said.

      Mr. Briody told the judge that "the punishment must be proportional to
      the conduct," and that the crime Mr. Biechele was charged with was
      "that he failed to get a permit. It was not murder."

      "Daniel Biechele was not reckless," he said. "He was not grossly or
      criminally negligent."

      In failing to seek a permit for his pyrotechnic show, which he knew
      was a requirement, Mr. Biechele was taking the conscious risk of
      people getting hurt, the prosecutor said.

      "He ignored common sense," Mr. White said. "Daniel Biechele's failure
      to get a permit in Rhode Island was not simply an unwitting, innocuous
      oversight, but a deliberate, intentional decision not to abide by
      Rhode Island law."

      Mr. White said there was little precedent in state criminal history to
      guide the judge in his sentencing decision.

      One of the deadliest fires in the nation's history was the Cocoanut
      Grove nightclub fire in Boston on Nov. 28, 1942, which claimed the
      lives of 492 people. In a case that has some parallels to the Rhode
      Island nightclub fire, the Cocoanut Grove was overcrowded the night of
      the fire, like The Station was in 2003. More than 1,000 were inside;
      the Cocoanut Grove had been designed for a maximum of 600.

      The owner of the Cocoanut Grove, Barnett Welansky, was charged with
      involuntary manslaughter, convicted and sent to prison to serve 12 to
      15 years. Prosecutors said he had failed to provide proper emergency
      exits and also cited the overcrowding, defective wiring and the
      installation of flammable decorations. After serving less than four
      years, Mr. Welansky was released after doctors diagnosed cancer in
      him.

      In the Rhode Island case, Mr. Biechele, along with the owners of The
      Station nightclub, were indicted on 200 counts of involuntary
      manslaughter — two counts for each person killed, under separate legal
      theories. The charges did not allege that the three intended to do any
      harm.

      Mr. Biechele entered into a plea deal with prosecutors in which he
      agreed to plead guilty to 100 of those counts — the ones that stemmed
      from his unauthorized use of pyrotechnics.

      In return for accepting responsibility for unintentionally killing 100
      nightclub patrons, prosecutors dismissed the other 100 counts, which
      accused Mr. Biechele of acting in a criminally negligent manner.
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