Roommates get 5 years for setting Seton Hall fire


NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – Two former roommates who set a dormitory fire that killed three students at Seton Hall University were sentenced to five years in prison Friday after listening to the victims’ relatives reject their apologies and call them murderers and cowards.

Joseph T. LePore and Sean Ryan, both 26, pleaded guilty in November to arson for setting fire to a paper banner in a lounge on Jan. 19, 2000. The flames spread to a couch, filling the dorm with smoke.

At the sentencing, family members of the three students who died and another who was seriously burned gave wrenching statements before a hushed courtroom jammed with more than 100 people.

Frank Caltabilota, whose son died, 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. “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 had seen for years on the defendants’ faces, and ridiculed their claim when the pleaded guilty that the fire was “a prank that got out of hand.”

Freshmen Frank Caltabilota, John Giunta and Aaron Karol, all 18, 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.

Many of the 14 speakers paid little heed to the judge’s warning that they address the court, not the defendants. Tracy Caltabilota, sister of Frank, told the men: “Your complete lack of remorse has shown you to be cowards as well as murderers.”

Both defendants 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 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 repeatedly apologized to the families.

“There’s nothing I can really say to take away your pain,” LePore said.

“I hope you can move on,” Ryan added.

The two young men were originally charged with murder. On the eve of their trial, they struck a plea bargain that spared them the minimum 30-year terms if they had been convicted as charged.

They will be eligible for parole in 16 months.

Investigators quickly determined the fire was arson, but LePore and Ryan were not charged until 2003.

LePore and Ryan, lifelong friends from Florham Park, also pleaded guilty to witness tampering for telling some friends to lie to authorities.

As part of the plea bargain, prosecutors dropped charges that included hindering apprehension against LePore’s parents, sister and a friend.