-- For more than three years the questions curled like smoke over the deadly fire at Seton Hall University: Who set the January 2000 blaze that killed three students and injured 53, some of them grievously? And when would prosecutors bring an indictment?
This week New Jersey prosecutors offered some answers, as an Essex County grand jury ended 21 months of meetings and handed up indictments for three men. Two -- Joseph LePore and Sean Ryan, both 22 -- were charged with felony murder and reckless manslaughter. The third -- Santino "Tino" Cataldo, 21 -- was charged with witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Prosecutors also obtained indictments against LePore's mother, father and sister in language that suggested a sustained coverup in the leafy, upper-middle-class precincts of Florham Park, N.J.
Felony murder, a first-degree crime, carries a minimum sentence of 30 years. Altogether, the men, who were freshmen at Seton Hall at the time of the fire, face 62 criminal counts. LePore and Ryan are being held in jail. LePore's family is laboring to raise $2.1 million bail, while Ryan faces bail of $2 million.
The narrative contained in legal papers features three lifelong friends who played sports and partied together, and their fiercely protective families. LePore's family, in particular, is accused of counseling him and his friends to stay silent and perhaps even flee before prosecutors moved in. Maria LePore counseled her son to "claim ignorance" and "stay united" with his friends to forestall the investigation, according to the indictment.
Joseph E. LePore, is accused of suggesting that the family flee from New Jersey to save his son from prosecution.
Many questions remain. Prosecutors have not offered an explanation as to why the youths allegedly set the fire, or if they intended anything more than a stupid, late-night prank. "They purposely started the fire that recklessly caused the death of these students. Why they did it? I can't comment," Judy Gagliano, a deputy chief assistant in the Essex County Prosecutor's Office, said today.
Nor have prosecutors unveiled the nature of their evidence. Defense attorneys assume, privately, that investigators bugged the defendants' homes and tapped telephones, but that is supposition. There is a fourth, unindicted co-conspirator, who is a longtime friend of LePore and Ryan's. He allegedly conspired to cover up the crime and may testify against the other three.
Cataldo is the son of an accused member of the Lucchese crime family. His father, Alfonso "Tic" Cataldo, faces his own problems, including charges of murder and racketeering in the 22-year-old death of a Newark numbers runner. The presence of an alleged mobster in Florham Park, where a quarter of all adults hold graduate degrees, is not unusual. The now imprisoned mob boss, Michael Taccetta, who along with his brother Martin was a pal of actor James Caan, has a home there. He was a model for James Gandolfini's character in the television series "The Sopranos."
There are, finally, the students who suffered severe burns and waited years for someone to be held accountable. Many have lived with the rumor -- apparently rampant on campus -- that these young men, two of whom continued to attend classes at Seton Hall, were the ones who set the fire.
On the night of the blaze, resident assistant Dana Christmas plunged into the fiery freshman dormitory time and again to help rescue students. According to the Star-Ledger, she became known as "The Angel of Boland Hall." On Thursday, a friend telephoned her apartment in Paterson, N.J., to tell her of the indictments.
"I was numb. . . . The last 31/2 years have almost been like hell," Christmas said. "It's like every time that I wake up and look in the mirror, I'm constantly reminded of January19th from my face, my arms, my fingers, the back of my scalp."
The fire began after 4 a.m. that day. Ryan, LePore, Cataldo and the unindicted co-conspirator, who enjoyed partying, according to reports in the Star-Ledger and the Record of Hackensack, had been hanging out in a third-floor lounge. Ryan pulled a poster from a bulletin board. It fell on a couch, and either LePore or Ryan lighted it, according to the indictment. Cataldo and the fourth person had already left, according to the indictment.
The poster burned, and the couch began to smoke lightly. Then the couch ignited, and smoke poured through the halls. "It is our inescapable conclusion," the grand jury report said, "that the flammability of the couches . . . was a major contributing factor to the deaths of the three young men."
The report said there was "nothing inherently unlawful" about the condition of the couches, as New Jersey's fire code does not require testing for such furniture. But the report noted that other states and cities require testing, and it urged New Jersey to adopt such standards.
In the hours after the fire, the three men accused of setting the blaze told investigators they had nothing to do with it. LePore milled around the campus like many students, appearing dazed and smelling of smoke, according to the Record. He told a local paper, "I thought it was a false alarm, that somebody did something stupid. We thought it was a joke."
For Christmas, the charges summon feelings of sadness rather than vengeance. She has a boyfriend now, and this week she walked outside for the first time without a scarf or wig to hide her scars.
"I don't have these ill feelings towards these guys," she said. "I just hope that they are aware in some way . . . of the damage they caused, how many people's lives they changed."