2 Plead Guilty In Seton Hall Dorm Fire

NEWARK, N.J. – Two former Seton Hall University students have pleaded guilty to arson and witness tampering in the 2000 dormitory fire that killed three freshmen and injured 50 others.

Joseph Lepore and Sean Michael Ryan, now both 26, admitted they lit a banner at Boland Hall early in the morning on Jan. 19, 2000. They said they did not intend to hurt anyone – it was a prank that went very wrong.

Prosecutors originally charged Lepore and Ryan with felony murder, reckless manslaughter and conspiracy to commit arson. Both defendants could have been sentenced to 30 years in prison. With their pleas to third-degree arson and witness tampering, however, they will be eligible for parole after serving 16 months.

As a result of the pleas, charges against Lapore’s parents, sister and friend were also dropped. Prosecutors suspected they might have been involved in the crime’s cover up.

All three of the victims killed in the fire, Aaron Karol, John Giunta and Frank Caltabilota, were age 18 at the time of the disaster. Many of the other victims who survived sustained severe burns that caused scarring.

Some of the fire’s survivors, as well as the families of the deceased filed civil lawsuits against both defendants, the manufacturer of the dorm furniture, and Argenbright Security. Seton Hall was also sued but settled about a year after the fire.

Defense attorneys for Lapore and Ryan say that other factors contributed to the tragedy, including the fact that the dorm didn’t have sprinklers or fire-retardant furniture.

As a result of the Seton Hall fire, all dormitories in New Jersey must be retrofitted with sprinkler systems. Additionally, many universities now require furniture be installed that is not combustible. Congress is also considering making colleges install sprinklers, smoke detectors and flame-retardant furniture before they can obtain their federal financial aid.

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