NEWARK, N.J. - Two roommates who admitted setting the deadly dormitory fire at Seton Hall University seven years ago got the deal they bargained for: five-year prison terms, with a chance of parole in 16 months.
But before Joseph T. LePore and Sean Ryan were sentenced Friday, they heard themselves called murderers and cowards for lighting a paper banner in a lounge and then fleeing while their fellow students slept.
For 90 minutes, family members of the three students killed and one seriously burned gave wrenching statements before a hushed courtroom jammed with more than 100 people.
Frank Caltabilota Sr., whose son died in the blaze, said his family could have forgiven the defendants had they quickly admitted their mistake and taken responsibility.
"Eventually, your judgment day will come from the highest court," he said. "You will both see a jury consisting of Frankie, Aaron and John. And on that day, justice will be served for what the two of you have done. And that judge will give you a final sentence. It will be a maximum sentence, with no negotiations or plea agreements, and no chance for parole."
Many scorned the "smirks" they said they had seen for years on the faces of the defendants, and they derided the plea statements in which LePore and Ryan said the fire was "a prank that got out of hand."
In pleading guilty to arson, LePore and Ryan said they set the banner on fire in a third-floor lounge of Boland Hall around 4:30 a.m. on Jan. 19, 2000. The flames soon spread to a couch, and smoke spread throughout the six-story dorm.
Freshmen Frank Caltabilota, John Giunta and Aaron Karol, all 18, were overcome by smoke and died. Dozens of others were injured, some seriously burned.
Many of the 14 speakers paid little heed to admonitions to address the judge, with Tracy Caltabilota, sister of Frank, telling the defendants: "Your complete lack of remorse has shown you to be cowards as well as murderers."
The defendants, both 26, watched the speakers, although Ryan looked away at times.
Phillip Giunta, father of John, said: "I don't think it was an accident. I don't think it was a prank. I think that's bull." He asserted that the fire was set because the resident assistant on the floor had sent the pair to their room after they had been rowdy in the lounge. Prosecutors said they had been drinking and celebrating a basketball-team victory.
The remarks came after LePore and Ryan faced the families of the dead and injured, and made brief remarks.
"There's nothing I can really say to take away your pain," LePore said. "I want you to know I'm terribly, terribly sorry for your loss. I'm sorry."
"I want you to know I am very, very sorry for your losses," Ryan added. "I hope you can move on. I'm very, very sorry."
The plea bargain reached on the eve of trial in November spared them the minimum 30-year terms if they had been convicted of murder charges.
LePore and Ryan, lifelong friends from Florham Park, came to court with their families. They were taken from the court in handcuffs. The state Department of Corrections will determine what prison the pair will be assigned to.
Besides arson, the men also pleaded guilty to witness-tampering for telling friends to lie to authorities. As part of the plea deal, prosecutors dropped charges against LePore's parents, sister and friend that included hindering apprehension.
Investigators quickly determined the fire was arson, but LePore and Ryan were not charged until 2003. The case languished as the defense sought to dismiss indictments it derided as circumstantial and questionable.
Essex County Prosecutor Paula T. Dow has admitted her case depended on circumstantial evidence, noting she had no eyewitnesses.
Defense lawyers have said the arson pleas, which include no acceptance of responsibility for the deaths or injuries, were appropriate because the school did not have adequate safeguards to prevent the blaze from spreading.
The university, however, said that it was in full compliance with existing fire codes, and that it was not unusual for a building built in 1952 not to have sprinklers.