Two sentenced to 5 years for setting dorm fire


Joseph T. LePore, right, and Sean Ryan, both 26, are led from Essex County Superior Court in Newark, N.J., Friday after being sentenced to five years in prison.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 27, 2007 at 12:38 a.m.
NEWARK, N.J. - Grief and anger, distilled over seven years, poured from relatives of three college freshmen killed in a smoky dorm fire that was set by two of their classmates.
Before they got the five-year prison terms they expected, Joseph T. LePore and Sean Ryan listened as they were described as murderers and cowards undeserving of mercy.
''Eventually, your judgment day will come from the highest court,'' Frank Caltabilota said. The jurors, he said, will be the three 18-year-old victims, including his son.
''And on that day, that sentence, Mr. LePore and Mr. Ryan, will be that you both rot in hell forever.''
LePore and Ryan, lifelong friends from Florham Park, attempted to thwart the investigation and pleaded guilty to arson only on the eve of their trial in November. They admitted that setting the fire was ''a prank that got out of hand.''
LePore and Ryan, both 26, admitted setting fire to a paper banner in a lounge about 4:30 a.m. Jan. 19, 2000.
The flames spread to a couch, filling the dorm with smoke.
John Giunta, Aaron Karol and Caltabilota's son, also named Frank, were overcome by smoke and died. Dozens of others were injured.
The fire led New Jersey to enact the nation's first law requiring sprinklers in dormitories at colleges and boarding schools.
The defendants would have received minimum 30-year terms had they been convicted of murder, as charged, but their plea bargains mean they will be eligible for parole in 16 months. LePore and Ryan also pleaded guilty to witness tampering for telling some friends to lie to authorities; prosecutors dropped charges against LePore's parents, sister and a friend.
Both defendants watched the 14 speakers, many of whom paid little heed to the judge's warning that they address the court, not the defendants.
In front of a hushed courtroom jammed with more than 100 people, 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 the fire was set because a resident assistant had sent the pair to their room for being rowdy.
Prosecutors said they had been drinking and celebrating a basketball team victory.
The relatives' remarks came after LePore and Ryan faced the families and said they were sorry.
''There's nothing I can really say to take away your pain,'' LePore said.
''I hope you can move on,'' Ryan added.
The narratives given by victims' relatives gave little indication that would happen soon.
''Your honor, if they had just called it a night and went to bed, none of us would be here now,'' said Joseph Karol, father of Aaron, who showed the court a framed portrait of his son.
''I have nightmares when I think about Aaron's last moments on this earth,'' Karol said, noting that his son was burned beyond recognition.
The fire left Alvaro Llanos in a coma for three months with terrible burns on his face and body.
''I can't see myself ever forgiving these two kids for starting this fire,'' Llanos wrote in a letter that a prosecutor read to the 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.''
The fact that LePore and Ryan didn't try to get people out of the smoke-filled building was clear to Peter Giunta, John's brother, the morning of the fire.
A Seton Hall junior at the time, Peter Giunta had to be rescued from the blaze. He said Friday that while searching the grounds for his dead sibling, he noticed that LePore and Ryan were among the few people not covered in soot.

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