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R.I. Club Owners to Plead in Fire Deaths

September 29, 2006

WARWICK, R.I. (AP) _ Intending to prevent a long and heart-wrenching trial, a judge is poised to accept plea agreements in the criminal case stemming from one of the worst nightclub fires in U.S. history.

Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, who owned The Station nightclub, planned to plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter charges on Friday in front of grieving and angry relatives of victims.

In exchange for their pleas, Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan planned to sentence Michael Derderian, 45, to four years in prison and give Jeff Derderian, 39, a suspended sentence with probation and 500 hours of community service.

On Feb. 20, 2003, a fire sparked by a rock band’s pyrotechnics killed 100 people and injured more than 200 at the brothers’ club. The tragedy stunned a state so small that many residents knew someone who was at the club that night.

The judge said he decided to accept the Derderians’ no-contest pleas partly because he wanted to spare the public a lengthy, emotional trial.

But many victims’ relatives were furious, saying they wanted the brothers to stand trial because they still have many unanswered questions about the fire.

About two dozen victims’ relatives have said they plan to speak in court before the Derderians enter their pleas and are sentenced. News of the no contest pleas angered many family members who hoped for far stiffer punishments.

``This is our last chance to really say what we want to say,″ Claire Bruyere, whose daughter, 27-year-old Bonnie Hamelin, died in the fire, said this week.

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

The fire at the club in West Warwick _ about 13 miles south of Providence _ broke out during a concert by the 1980s band Great White, when pyrotechnics used as a stage prop ignited flammable foam that the Derderian brothers used as soundproofing around the stage.

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

The Derderians brothers and Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele were indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges.

In May, Biechele was sentenced to four years in prison for igniting the pyrotechnics without the required permit. He pleaded guilty in February to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

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 to answer neighbors’ complaints about loud music at the club.

Jody King, a longtime friend of the Derderians whose brother was a club employee and died in the fire, said he plans to sit behind the Derderians in court on Friday.

``If someone could sit behind them and support them, I will do that.″