Seton Hall

Under Questioning

It happened while Sean Ryan was being questioned. At first, he said nothing about the banner, instead telling authorities that he was in the hallway, saw the fire, knocked on Dan Nugent's door to alert him, and then grabbed LaPore and fled out a back staircase.

He acknowledged that he warned no one else, not even Gabe Smith and John Giunta, whose room was adjacent to Ryan's. Authorities recounted for him how Smith, who was five foot eight, managed to escape with minor injuries. Slipping under the heat and smoke he had crawled to safety. Giunta, who was far taller, was not so lucky. He caught the full blast of it as he stepped to the door of his room. He died of smoke inhalation. According to court documents, in the five minutes or so between the time the fire had first been reported and the time it hit its apex, the smoke had become so intense that when firefighters finally moved Giunta's lifeless body, they found a perfect outline of his form etched in soot on the floor.

As the questioning got more intense, Ryan cracked a bit, according to investigators and court records. He acknowledged pulling down the banner, but still emphatically denied that he had any knowledge of how the fire started. At the end of that first interview, pressed even harder, Ryan said something that made the cops who had grown up on the same streets as he had sit up and take notice.

"I'm no rat," he said.

Within a few days, Ryan, LaPore, Cataldo and Karpenski all had retained lawyers. As far as the cops were concerned, that meant one thing. The time for mercy had ended.

As the paternalistic veteran cop put it, they had given the boys a chance to admit responsibility, and they refused. "Basically... you're basically saying, 'look kid, if it was an accident, talk about it.'

"But they're saying... 'I didn't have nothing to do with it, and if you think I did then you're gonna have to prove it.'

"So we come and get you. What can I tell you? You had your chance. You had your choice."

Authorities now say that the investigators' combat offensive began less than a month after the fire. It was no secret around campus or to the police in South Orange for that matter, that many of the university's students congregated at night at a local dive called "The Hall," a faux Goth bar a few blocks from the campus.

It was also no secret that many of the students pounding back brews were underage. So, on the night of February 18, 2000, a task force from the Essex County prosecutor's office raided the bar, arresting dozens of students and a handful of adults on charges of underage drinking, underage possession of alcohol and serving booze to minors. Among those caught up in the sweep were Ryan, Cataldo and several of Ryan's pals from the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.

According to state officials familiar with the raid, none of the cops on duty that night was particularly interested in going out on a cold winter's night to enforce New Jersey's alcoholic beverage control regulations. The real purpose of the raid was to show that the cops meant business, and to that end, more than a dozen subpoenas were handed out demanding that Ryan's friends appear before a special grand jury.

That grand jury appearance was scuttled a week later when news of it leaked to the media. By the time the students, some of them accompanied by lawyers, arrived at the Essex County Courthouse the hallway outside the grand jury meeting room was swarmed with reporters. Rattled by the chaos on their own doorstep, prosecutors decided that it would be more judicious to bring the students in one at a time, a move that slowed the investigation even further.

Over the next several months, 120 witnesses were paraded in front of the grand jury. And little by little, a picture emerged from the smoke and ash of what had transpired in the hours and minutes leading up to the blaze.

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