Judge Upholds Manslaughter Charges In Great White Fire Case

Criminal case against club owners and the band's former manager can proceed.

Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan Jr. refused on Monday to dismiss manslaughter charges against the owners of the Station nightclub in Rhode Island where 100 people died in a 2003 fire during a Great White show. Darigan also refused to dismiss any charges against former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele.

According to The Associated Press, the decision means that prosecutors can proceed with their case against the three, who have pleaded not guilty to 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the fire started by by onstage pyrotechnics that ignited flammable soundproofing foam around the stage at the West Warwick, Rhode Island, club (see "Guitarist Ty Longley Among 97 Dead In Great White Club Fire").

In October, lawyers for the three had asked Darigan to dismiss half the counts in the indictment. Last month they expanded that request, accusing prosecutors of withholding evidence that they believe helps their case (see "Club Owners Allege Prosecutors Withheld Evidence In Probe Of Fatal Concert Fire").

Prosecutors allege that Station owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian violated the fire code by using non-flame-resistant foam and that Biechele set off pyrotechnics without obtaining a permit. But defense lawyers have argued that those are misdemeanors and are not a basis for a manslaughter conviction. In trying to gain a dismissal on the charges last month, the club owners' lawyer presented a fax from the salesman that sold them the foam, in which he said the American Foam Corp. did not warn customers about the dangers of the product; the company denied the salesman's claims. The judge ruled that the fax — which the salesman originally sent to prosecutors anonymously and which was not presented as evidence to the grand jury — did not significantly help the defense's case.

According to the AP, the club owners have also claimed that fire officials failed to tell them that their foam violated state fire codes, but Darigan determined that prior notice is not a factor in the charges. The judge ruled that misdemeanor manslaughter is not a crime of "specific intent," which is why the club owners were not charged with murder, which requires a clear intention to harm the victims.

The move comes after last week's ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Lagueux, who refused to dismiss a massive negligence case against the town of West Warwick filed by more than 250 people who were injured or lost family members in the February 2003 blaze, including the girlfriend of late Great White guitarist Ty Longley (see "Lawsuit Against Rhode Island Town Over Deadly Club Fire Can Proceed, Judge Rules").