PROVIDENCE - Just before he was sentenced to prison for his part in a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people, Daniel Biechele cried as he told victims' relatives he couldn't expect them to forgive him for lighting the pyrotechnics that sparked the blaze.
Sixteen months later, Biechele is eligible for parole - and it appears many of the relatives have not only forgiven him but also support an early release from his four-year prison term.
Some are expected to address the parole board tomorrow, ahead of Biechele's Sept. 19 parole hearing.
Biechele, the former tour manager for the rock band Great White, has been jailed since May 2006 after admitting he illegally lit pyrotechnics during a February 2003 concert at The Station nightclub in West Warwick.
The explosives set ablaze flammable foam on the club's walls, fueling a fast-moving fire that trapped concertgoers. More than 200 people were injured.
Many say Biechele has done enough time behind bars and hold him less responsible for the fire than club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, who pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter charges last year and admitted to installing the foam as soundproofing. Michael Derderian, who is also serving a four-year prison term, is not yet eligible for parole; his brother was spared jail time.
"I think they should not even bother with a hearing - just let Biechele out," said Leland Hoisington, whose daughter, Abbie, 28, died in the blaze. "I just don't find him as guilty of anything."
That sentiment is echoed in the overwhelming majority of letters sent to the state parole board in advance of this month's hearing. Most of the roughly 20 letters from victims' relatives express support for Biechele getting parole, board chairwoman Lisa Holley said.
The letters credit Biechele with being the first person to accept responsibility, Holley said, in some cases referring to him as a "scapegoat" and saying he bears limited culpability for the fire.
The overtures of leniency and forgiveness are striking given the bitter anger still associated with the fire.
"I think the most overwhelming part of it for me was the depth of forgiveness of many of these families that have sustained such a loss," said Holley, who said she was prohibited by law from releasing the letters but agreed to discuss them in general terms.
Support from the families certainly helps Bicehele, but it does not ensure parole, Holley said. Other factors considered include the inmate's remorse, risk of reoffending and plans for life after prison.
The board has the option of granting immediate parole; granting parole but assigning a future release date; denying parole but scheduling another hearing several months later; or denying parole altogether and requiring prisoners to serve out their sentence.
Biechele, who pleaded guilty to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, choked back tears during his an emotional sentencing hearing in May 2006.
"I will never forget that night, and I will never forget the people that were hurt by it," he said. "I am so sorry."
He also sent handwritten letters to the families of all 100 people killed.
"In the period following this tragedy, it was Mr. Biechele, alone, who stood up and admitted responsibility for his part in this horrible event," Dave Kane and Joanne O'Neill, the parents of the youngest fire victim, Nicholas O'Neill, wrote in a letter they sent to the board and released to reporters.
"He apologized to the families of the victims and made no attempt to mitigate his guilt," the letter said.
Donald Latulippe, whose 46-year-old son, Dale, died in the fire, said he wouldn't object if the parole board released Biechele. "He didn't start this thing on purpose, to cause death," Latulippe said. "It was an accident."