Seton Hall

The Meeting

In fact, on January 21, two days after the deadly blaze, Ryan, LaPore and two of their closest buddies, Santino "Tino" Cataldo, and Michael Karpenski, met at a Dunkin' Donuts in their hometown of Florham Park. All four had been present that night in Boland Hall, though Karpenski and Cataldo had left the building about an hour before the blaze started. A video retrieved from the first-floor exit of the dorm after the fire proved that, as did a time-stamped receipt from a White Castle about a mile from the university.

Santino Cataldo
Santino Cataldo
But Cataldo and Karpenski, as a grand jury would later be told, had been present in the dorm long enough to witness what authorities would later decide was a critical moment in the events that led to the fire. They had been there, authorities would allege, when Sean Ryan had ripped down a construction paper banner - one of the ubiquitous and slightly lame decorations that their resident assistant, Dan Nugent, had put up on the bulletin board in the third-floor lounge to welcome the returning freshmen back from Christmas break.

Though the investigators hadn't said anything about it publicly, they had already begun to focus on the banner as the likely place where the fire had begun. Two witnesses, Nugent among them, had already told investigators that the banner had been ripped down and that they had seen the first flickering flames - they described it as a "campfire-size" blaze - burning on one of the three couches. In fact, Nugent said that as he used his portable phone to call in the alarm, he had tried to douse the flames with one of the 55 fire extinguishers in the building. He probably would have been successful if it hadn't been for the fact that he was flustered and managed to break only one of the two seals on the extinguisher.

What's more, authorities had learned from Nugent that similar incidents, though never so grave, had happened before when someone - he never did learn whom - had ripped down other construction paper decorations and set them on fire in the dorm. And the truth was every one in the dorm knew that there was some bad blood between Nugent and the boys from Florham Park in Room 3023. A few weeks before the fire, Nugent had written Ryan and LaPore up after smelling what he believed to be residual marijuana smoke in their room. The pair was already on a kind of limited probation, thanks to Nugent, and on the night of the fire, authorities would later learn, Nugent had chastised them at least twice for their rowdiness.

Of course, Ryan and LaPore and Cataldo and Karpenski had no idea that investigators had already learned about the banner. If they had their way, authorities allege, it would have remained a secret forever. That, say prosecutors, was the reason for the quartet's meeting at the Dunkin' Donuts in Florham Park. According to testimony later squeezed out before the grand jury, the four friends decided that no matter what happened, they would tell no one about the banner.

To most of those who know the four young men, the vow of silent solidarity they took at the Dunkin' Donuts that day was typical. The four, Ryan, the sandy-haired prankster, LaPore, the dark-eyed athlete, Cataldo, the slightly mysterious one, and Karpenski, the jock, had all grown up together in Florham Park, a leafy suburb that somehow still sweats like a city. It's the kind of place where Tony Soprano rubs shoulders with Ward Cleaver and where the kids grow up trying to emulate both. You need only look at the kids' pedigrees to see the influences of the streets of Florham Park. Cataldo was the son of a suspected mobster, a detail authorities would later use to some advantage. LaPore's family was friendly with the family of a confessed mob hitman, a relationship that authorities would later use to much advantage. Ryan, meanwhile, was the son of a mild-mannered used car salesman, a fact that authorities would find no advantage in at all.

But the cops and the prosecutors in the case, most of whom grew up in the same sort of neighborhoods, saw the quartet's silence as something other than just typical North Jersey macho posing.

The word they used was conspiracy.

Within two days of the Dunkin' Donuts meeting, however, the conspiracy began to unravel.

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