Outraged relatives of fire victims fail to stop plea bargain

Published September 30, 2006

WARWICK, R.I. - Relatives of the 100 people killed in a nightclub fire vented their grief and fury at the judge and the legal system Friday but were unable to derail a plea bargain in which one of the club's owners received four years behind bars and the other got no prison time.

Michael Derderian, who received the prison sentence, and his brother, Jeffrey, pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2003 blaze, which was sparked by a rock group's pyrotechnics and quickly engulfed the Station nightclub in West Warwick because the Derderians had installed highly flammable foam on the walls to ease neighbors' noise concerns.

Judge Francis Darigan admonished the victims' relatives not to try to talk him out of approving a plea bargain for the Derderians. But many of them bitterly ignored the warning in a sentencing so turbulent that the judge abruptly recessed the proceedings at one point to defuse the tension in the room.

"Lady Justice in Rhode Island is blind, but she's also deaf," Jay McLaughlin, the brother-in-law of two of the victims, told the judge. Other family members applauded as he returned to his seat.

The judge refused to reconsider the plea bargain, saying it would spare the victims and Rhode Island from having to "relive the moments of this tragedy" and would "avoid an extremely lengthy, costly and heartrending trial whose outcome was uncertain."

"I understand how you feel about this case," the judge told family members. "My greatest regret, however, most sincere regret, is that this criminal justice system cannot give you the relief you seek."

Jeffrey Derderian, 39, and Michael Derderian, 45, have said they did not know the foam was flammable. Michael Derderian received the harsher sentence because he bought the foam.