Involuntary Manslaughter Charges Remain Against Rhode Island Club Owners

Though a former rock band tour manager is now behind bars for his role in a nightclub fire that killed 100 people, prosecutors say they are not finished with the criminal case stemming from a disaster that devastated the state three years ago.

Daniel Biechele was sentenced to four years in prison Wednesday for setting off the pyrotechnics that triggered the Feb. 20, 2003, fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick.

But charges remain against Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, the brothers who owned the club where the band Great White was performing that night. Both have pleaded not guilty to 200 counts each of involuntary manslaughter.

The Derderians are accused of operating their club negligently and installing the flammable soundproofing foam that fed the flames.

"Biechele is done, he is a convicted felon," Attorney General Patrick Lynch told reporters outside Providence Superior Court. "Next up is Michael Derderian, and we're anxious for that trial."

Michael Derderian's trial is scheduled to begin July 31. No trial date is set for his brother.

Biechele pleaded guilty in February to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter and could have served up to 10 years in prison.

His lawyer asked for community service instead of jail time, arguing that Biechele was the only person who has accepted responsibility for the fire. He said his client had no way of knowing that the foam on the club's walls, used to muffle sound, was highly toxic.

"I ask you to consider this: Dan Biechele is the only man in this tragedy to stand up and say, 'I did something wrong,'" defense lawyer Thomas Briody said Wednesday during the sentencing hearing. "He's the only man to say, 'I apologize.'"

Afterward, Biechele, 29, stood up and choked back tears as he expressed remorse for his role in the fire.

"I know how this tragedy has devastated me but I can only begin to understand what the people who have lost loved ones have endured," he told the court. "I don't know that I'll ever forgive myself for what happened that night, so I can't expect anyone else to.

"I never wanted anyone to be hurt in any way," he said. "I never imagined that anyone ever would be."

Biechele had routinely used pyrotechnics to entertain crowds at concerts by Great White, a California-based band that rose to popularity in the 1980s. He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter counts that accused him of igniting the pyrotechnics without the required permit.

Biechele has said he received permission from Michael Derderian to use the explosives at The Station, but the Derderians have said he never had permission.

The three men were each indicted in December 2003 on 200 counts of involuntary manslaughter — two counts for each person killed, under separate legal theories. No one else was charged. The three men are among dozens of defendants being sued by the fire's survivors and victims' relatives.

On Thursday, victims' families briefly thought Biechele was getting a 15-year sentence, but the judge suspended 11 years of that term. He also sentenced Biechele to three years probation.

"We've already suffered almost that long — four years. We've already suffered that long," said Annmarie Swidwa, whose 25-year-old daughter, Bridget Sanetti, died in the fire.

Biechele was led from the courtroom in handcuffs to be transferred to the state prison. He will be eligible for parole after serving a year and four months, or a third of his sentence.

Jessica Garvey, whose 30-year-old half-sister Dina DeMaio died in the fire, said she holds the Derderians more responsible, but she wanted Biechele to serve the maximum sentence.

"He's the least responsible in my mind. But if he only gets four years, what are the others going to get?" Garvey said.