Seton Hall

The Fat Lady Sings

All grand jury proceedings by law are secret, and most of the more than 6,000 pages of transcripts and evidence from the special grand jury convened to consider the Seton Hall case remain under seal. Campolo, the acting prosecutor, speaking through a spokeswoman, has refused to discuss any details of the case and as of late August, even the attorneys representing Ryan, LaPore and Cataldo had seen only a fraction of the evidence against their clients.

Donald Campolo, acting prosecutor
Donald Campolo, acting prosecutor
But according to key documents reviewed by the popular men's magazine Stuff, including summation statements made to the grand jury by Assistant Prosecutors Jeffrey Cartwright and Norman Menz at two key moments during the 40-month long probe, the events that led to the fire began with a stupid frat boy prank. "It's the fat girl scenario," as one of the attorneys put it.

A somewhat awkward young coed had become infatuated with Ryan, and one of his pals, a young man who is not suspected of playing any part in the blaze, apparently thought it would be funny to see if he could set the two of them up together.

The opportunity presented itself on the night of January 19, the night of the biggest basketball game on the Seton Hall schedule, when, according to the girl's testimony, the girl and her roommates decided to throw a party in their dorm room.

Nugent, the resident assistant whose prim demeanor had apparently irked Ryan and LaPore in the past, told the grand jury that the party was raucous enough that he had tried and failed -- to break it up.

As the party wore down, Ryan realized that his friend had pranked him, authorities contend. Whether it was embarrassment lubricated with booze or real rage is anybody's guess but witnesses testified that an impromptu wrestling match broke out which spilled into the third-floor lounge. While Ryan and his frat brother were wrestling, Ryan, as he admitted under interrogation, ripped down the banner.

Nugent appeared again, as he always seemed to whenever the boys got rowdy, and according to his testimony, he threw them out of the lounge. The confrontation, it seems, was loud enough to prompt another RA, Dana Christmas to investigate. Seeing that Nugent apparently had things under control, she told authorities, that she simply went back to her room, unaware that within a few minutes, she would be fighting not only for her own life but the life of the students in her care.

The next key piece of evidence came from Gabe Smith, the freshman whose dorm room was adjacent to Ryan and LaPore's room. Smith told the grand jury that he and his roommate, John Giunta, who had died before he ever reached the threshold of his dorm room, had been lying awake in the minutes leading up to the fire and that they remembered hearing footsteps entering LaPore and Ryan's room, then leaving. The sound trailed off in the direction of the stairway at the opposite end of the hallway from the lounge. Moments later, they heard the fire alarm.

To Menz, the assistant prosecutor, that was a critical detail. It meant that he could place LaPore and or Ryan outside of their room in the moments immediately before the fire.

There was more. Karpenski, who had at first testified to the grand jury that he knew nothing about the fire, later recanted, under the advice of his attorney. Among other things, he told the jurors about the January 21 meeting at the Dunkin' Donuts in Florham Park when the four lifelong friends agreed to keep the secret of the banner.

With that, authorities had three key elements of their case in place. They had a motive the frivolous feud between the boys from Florham Park and their brittle RA. They had opportunity, and with Karpenski's testimony, they also had evidence of a conspiracy to withhold crucial information from the grand jury.

But, the cops and prosecutors realized, they still didn't have a smoking gun.

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