Families oppose parole for Seton Hall arsonists in 2000 dormitory fire that killed 3

March 14, 2008 2:43:07 PM PDT
Families of Seton Hall students killed in a dormitory fire eight years ago are fighting parole for the roommates who admitted setting the blaze, one relative said Friday. The January 2000 fire at the northern New Jersey university killed three freshmen and injured dozens. Joseph LePore and Sean Ryan have admitted they set a banner on fire in the lounge.

LePore and Ryan have a parole board hearing March 31. If approved, they could be released in May, about 16 months after they went to prison.

The two 27-year-olds have been model inmates at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility in Yardville, their lawyers said. But families of victims said the men should serve their entire five-year terms for arson.

"The hope is to have the parole board bombarded by as many letters as possible requesting that parole be denied," said Joseph Karol, father of Aaron Karol, one of three 18-year-old students killed in the blaze.

About 100 letters have already been sent, he said.

The sentences were reached in plea bargains that many family members bitterly opposed. The deals were reached on the eve of a murder trial nearly seven years after the fire. Had they been convicted of murder, the two would have faced at least 30 years in prison.

LePore and Ryan, lifelong friends from Florham Park, have cooperated in rehabilitation and are unlikely to violate parole conditions, their lawyers said.

"Joey's a teacher's aide. Sean's a teacher's aide. They are taking all the courses the institution offers. They have no infractions," said LePore's lawyer, Salvatore T. Alfano. Both have jobs waiting, he said, but declined to say where or what.

Ryan's lawyer, Michael S. Bubb, said, "I think they've both done an admirable job of adjusting."

The lawyers, as well as relatives of the victims, cannot attend the closed parole hearing. If rejected for parole, LePore and Ryan can appeal to the full parole board, then to an appeals court.

In their plea deals, LePore and Ryan admitted they set a paper banner on fire in a lounge of Boland Hall on the South Orange campus about 4:30 a.m. Jan. 19, 2000. The flames soon spread to a couch, and smoke spread throughout the six-story dorm.

Along with Aaron Karol, 18-year-olds Frank Caltabilota and John Giunta were overcome by smoke and died. Dozens of others were injured, some of them seriously burned.

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

In pleading guilty, LePore and Ryan both called the fire "a prank that got out of hand," assertions that still ring hollow to Joseph Karol.

"If it was a prank, why didn't they try to extinguish it, to put it out?" Karol asked. "But they ran from the scene and they hid, and they remained hidden for seven years."

Beyond brief expressions of sorrow to the families at sentencing over a year ago, Karol said he has yet to hear from either LePore or Ryan.

That demonstrates a lack of rehabilitation, Karol said, adding, "I don't see these individuals accepting responsibility."


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