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Seton Hall Students Sentenced to 5 Years for Fire

By Carolyn E. Price     Jan 26, 2007 in Crime
Seton Hall students get what some would call a sweetheart deal.
Two former Seton Hall University students were sentenced today to five years in prison after they admitted that they set a fire in a dormitory seven years ago that killed three students and injured several others -- an act one of them called “a prank that got out of hand.”
Joseph T. Lepore and Sean Michael Ryan, both now 26 years-old, reached the plea agreement in November. At that time, they were set to begin a trial on murder charges that could have resulted in sentences of more than 30 years in prison.
Under the negotiated plea agreement, they plead guilty to arson and witness tampering. They could be eligible for parole in 16 months. The state Department of Corrections has yet to decide in which prison facility they will serve their sentences.
As part of their plea agreement, the two had to admit in open court that the day after the fire they met with other students who were in the dormitory lounge the night of the fire, and urged them to lie to investigators about what they saw. Mr. Lepore also plead guilty to resisting arrest.
Prosecutors agreed to drop charges of obstruction, witness tampering and lying to investigators that were levelled against Mr. LePore's parents, Joseph and Maria LePore; his sister Lauren LePore, 27; and a friend, Santino Cataldo, 24, of East Hanover, N.J.
Just before they were sentenced, the two men stood and offered rambling apologies to the friends and relatives of the students killed or injured in the fire.
"I want you to know I'm terribly, terribly, terribly sorry for your loss," Mr. LePore said. Mr. Ryan, his former roommate, said: "I want you to know I am very, very sorry for your losses. I hope you can move on." Looks like they had the same script writer giving them crib notes.
They were led away in handcuffs, but not before hearing 12 relatives and friends of the victims address the court. Most of them criticized the actions of the two men, who ran away from the scene instead of staying to alert others about the fire. The fire quickly filled the hallways and dormitory rooms at Boland Hall with smoke.
"An apology is no longer noble when they only benefit yourself," said Thomas Caltabilota of West Long Branch, whose brother, Frank Jr., died. Frank Caltabilota was 18 when he died in the fire. Mr. Caltabilota called the defendants "spineless princes".
Also killed in the fire were John N. Giunta and Aaron Karol, both 18. All three students were freshmen.
"I can't see myself ever forgiving these two kids for starting this fire," Alvaro Llanos wrote. Mr. Llanos who was injured in the fire, 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."
Prosecutors said they decided to abandon pursuing the murder charges and accept the arson pleas because they were concerned that at a jury trial, jurors might get confused and not be persuaded by a case that relied upon circumstantial evidence, much of it involving complex science.
The fatal fire came at the end of a night of partying when students were celebrating a victory by the Seton Hall basketball team. The fire attracted national attention to fire safety in college dormitories. It led to the installation of sprinkler systems in older dormitories in New Jersey that did not have them.
They went from facing murder charges to getting 5 years with a possibility of parole in 16 months time? Who were their lawyers, next time I get a parking ticket I want them to get the city to pay me for pain and suffering!
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