The two brothers who owned the Rhode Island nightclub where 100 people died after a pyrotechnics stunt went awry during a 2003 Great White concert will plead no contest to charges of involuntary manslaughter.
The plea was announced Wednesday in a letter to victims’ families by Rhode Island’s attorney general, according to The New York Times and it spares Station nightclub co-owner Jeffrey Derderian, 39, from serving any prison time for his role in the deadly fire, one of the worst in the state’s history (see “Great White Fire Claims 100th Life” ).
While Jeffrey will be sentenced to three years of probation and 500 hours of community service, brother Michael Derderian will be sentenced to serve four years in a minimum-security prison and three years probation. According to the Providence Journal, Michael will also have an 11-year suspended sentence, which he might have to serve if he gets into trouble while on probation.
The plea deal — which is an admission of guilt, but not the same as a guilty plea — came as jury selection was beginning for the trial of Michael Derderian, and it resolves all criminal charges that stemmed from the tragic fire (see “Great White Manager, Club Owners Hit With Criminal Charges” ).
In February, Daniel Biechele, Great White’s tour manager and the man who set off the pyro, pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to four years in prison (see “Great White Tour Manager Gets Four Years For Role In Blaze” ). Michael Derderian’s sentence is identical to that of Biechele.
In his letter to the families of the victims, attorney general Patrick Lynch expressed strong reservations about the plea deal, writing, “I want each of you to understand that as attorney general, I have not agreed to this disposition, and I will continue to strongly voice my objection,” the Journal reported. “Despite their desire to admit to the charges against them, I was unwilling to recommend or agree to the sentences that I have been advised the court will impose. Most significantly, I strongly disagree with the court’s intention to sentence Jeffrey Derderian to less than jail.”
According to Michael Derderian’s lawyer, it was Lynch’s office that originally proposed the sentences, and later tried to take them off the table after the brothers agreed. A spokesperson for Lynch denied the attorney’s account, the Providence Journal reported. Prosecutors had been trying to convince the Derderians to cop a plea for more than a year, which the brothers refused to do until last week, insisting that they wanted a trial so that they could explain what happened the night of the fire. Michael Derderian’s lawyer said the pair changed their minds on September 11, out of a desire to spare the families of the victims the trauma of having to relive that night.
The deal didn’t sit well with many of the relatives of those killed and the 200 people injured in the fire, several of whom told The New York Times, that they planned to attend the September 29 sentencing. “As far as I’m concerned, these guys are getting away with murder,” said Charles Sweet, who lost his son Shawn, 28, and Shawn’s girlfriend, Laura Gillette. “I really thought that these two guys would be facing some serious jail time. I mean, they had 440 people inside that club, and the capacity was 300. My wife and I are devastated.”
Like many of the family members, Anna Gruttadauria — whose daughter Pam, 33, died after being hospitalized for two and a half months after the fire — wanted to see the Derderians, especially Michael, 45, face trial. “I think it’s awful,” she said. “I just wanted to see his face. I just wanted to see him go through something the way we did with our daughter. After four years he’ll be walking free. My daughter is six feet under. I’ll never see her face again.”
Jeffrey Derderian received the lighter sentence because — while he was in the West Warwick, Rhode Island, club the night of the fire — authorities said Michael Derderian played a greater role in buying and installing the highly flammable sound-insulating foam around the stage that almost instantly ignited when the band’s pyrotechnics began. According to the Journal, even though Michael — who was more involved in running the club — was not there on the night of the fire, he agreed to go to prison to spare his brother, who is the father of two young children.