By Louis C. Hochman
Reporting for the following piece involved several Kent County and Warwick Daily Times staff members, under the direction of Louis C. Hochman, after news broke about an hour before the paper’s print deadline. Louis C. Hochman wrote the text.
Originally published in the Kent County and Warwick Daily Times · Sept. 20, 2006
The announcement came yesterday, with words of concern and regret: Michael Derderian will go to jail for four years; his brother Jeffrey won’t go to jail at all.
Those left behind by the Station nightclub fire, the family members and survivors of a blaze that consumed 100 lives in February 2003, learned yesterday the club’s two owners had pleaded no contest to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
For most, the notice came in the form of a letter from Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch, who in a three-page correspondence said he strongly objects to Superior Court Associate Justice Francis J. Darigan’s decision to accept the plea. For others, it came from media reports and word-of-mouth.
“We’re just shocked to hear that,” said Raymond Mattera of Warwick, whose 29-year-old daughter, Tammy Mattera-Housa, died in the fire. “It just seems that it’s not fair. There’s no justice at all. There’s none for my daughter, and there’s none for my grandsons, who now have no mother.
“To the other 99 people who died and the people who were scarred and injured, it’s just not fair.”
A massive jury selection process for the trial of Michael Derderian — who like his brother was to face 200 charges of manslaughter, two for each victim under separate theories of the crime — began early this month, when hundreds of potential jurors were called upon to fill out 32-page-long questionnaires aimed at unveiling any biases that might exclude them from serving. Darigan warned prospective jurors a trial for Michael Derderian could take months; Jeffrey Derderian’s trial hadn’t yet been scheduled. But that entire process was rendered moot by the decision announced to family members yesterday.
Attorney General’s Office spokesman Michael Healey told the Daily Times’ sister paper The Pawtucket Times Lynch would make a formal announcement at about 10 a.m. today, and was spending last night calling family members.
According to Lynch’s letter to families, on Sept. 29 the Derderians will appear in court, and may be sentenced on that date. Michael Derderian is set to serve four years of a 15-year sentence at the Adult Correctional Institutions, and receive three years of probation.
Jeffery Derderian will receive a suspended sentence of 10 years, with three years probation — meaning he won’t serve any actual jail time, the letter states. Jeffrey Derderian is also to perform 500 hours of community service. In his letter, Lynch repeatedly stresses his objection to the court’s decision, which he told families the law allows the judge to make without his agreement.
“I respectfully disagree with, and object to, the sentences that the court intends to impose on Michael Derderian and Jeffrey Derderian,” he wrote. “Most specifically, I strongly disagree with the court’s intention to sentence Jeffrey Derderian to less than jail.”
He wrote that the judge decided to accept the Derderians’ plea after taking into account the “untold emotional impact and pain that two trials … would inevitably cause.”
“Although I respect these considerations, I am also mindful that through months of trial preparation, the survivors of those killed in the Station nightclub fire have been resolute in their strength and desire to see justice done, including their willingness to assist in the trial
of these cases,” he wrote.
Lynch also reminded those receiving his letter that victims may address the court before it accepts a plea agreement and a sentence is imposed.
“I understand that, in light of the court’s decision to impose specific sentences, this process may seem futile to you,” Lynch wrote. “Nevertheless, I urge you to address the court if that is your desire.”
In May, former Great White tour manager Daniel Biechele pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, for igniting the pyrotechnic display that started the Stationnightclub fire without the required permit. He was sentenced to four years in prison.
But the Derderians had contended they would fight the charges against them, and allegations that they could have prevented the blaze.
Kathleen Haggerty, the Derderians’ attorney, could not be reached by the Daily Times yesterday, but confirmed to the Associated Press her clients had accepted the plea arrangement.
“There were those who maintained this fire was simply an accident, and that I sought to extend the reach of criminal law,” Lynch wrote. “I disagreed, and the fact that three persons have now accepted criminal responsibility has proven my office’s position correct.”
But some victims’ family members, contacted last night, said that concession offers little comfort.
“Before they were arguing (the assertion they were) guilty, and now they’re changing again,” said Madeline Medeiros of Coventry, sister-in-law of Station fire victim Tom Medeiros. “I just hope that something really does happen. It won’t make us feel better, but hopefully the laws will change and something will be done so something like this won’t happen again.”