2 Ex-Roommates Who Set Deadly Seton Hall Dorm Fire Get 5 Years in Prison

Two former roommates who set a dormitory fire that killed three students at Seton Hall University were sentenced Friday to five years in prison.

A plea bargain spared Joseph T. LePore and Sean Ryan, both 26, from facing more than 30 years in prison if they had been convicted in a trial. They could be eligible for parole in 16 months.

LePore and Ryan, who said the fire seven years ago resulted from "a prank that got out of hand," apologized to the victims' families.

"There's nothing I can really say to take away your pain," LePore said.

"I want you to know I am very, very sorry for your losses," Ryan said. "I hope you can move on."

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Alvaro Llanos, a student horribly burned in the blaze, and Frank Caltabilota Sr., the father of one of those who died, said that at this point, no apology would be good enough.

"I can't see myself ever forgiving these two kids for starting this fire," Llanos wrote in a letter that was read in court. "They should have been man enough to bang on doors and save everyone's life. Instead, they ran away like the cowards they are."

In pleading guilty to arson in November, LePore and Ryan said they set a paper banner on fire in a third-floor lounge around 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2000. The flames spread to a couch. The fire was largely confined to the lounge, but smoke spread throughout the six-story dorm, which lacked sprinklers.

Dozens were injured and 18-year-old freshmen Frank Caltabilota Jr., John Giunta and Aaron Karol were overcome by smoke and died.

The elder Caltabilota said his family could have forgiven the defendants had they quickly taken responsibility.

"Eventually, your judgment day will come from the highest court," he said. "You will see a jury consisting of Frankie, Aaron and John. On that day, justice will be done."

In addition to arson, LePore and Ryan pleaded guilty to witness tampering for telling some friends to lie to authorities. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped charges against LePore's parents, sister and friend that included hindering apprehension.

Essex County Prosecutor Paula T. Dow has acknowledged her case depended on circumstantial evidence, noting in November, "We had no eyewitnesses, other than the defendants themselves, who could place the defendants at that location."

Defense lawyers have said the arson pleas, which take no responsibility for the deaths or injuries, were appropriate because the school did not have adequate systems to prevent the blaze from spreading.

The university, however, said it was in compliance with existing fire codes, and that it was not unusual for a building built in 1952 not to have sprinklers.

The fire led New Jersey to enact the nation's first law requiring sprinklers in dormitories at colleges and boarding schools.