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R.I. blaze victim’s father seeks investigation

Contends officials botched inquiry

Sparked by a rock band’s pyrotechnics, a fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., killed 100 people in 2003. Sparked by a rock band’s pyrotechnics, a fire at the Station nightclub in West Warwick, R.I., killed 100 people in 2003. (Robert E. Klein/ Associated Press/ File 2003)
Associated Press / October 27, 2009

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PROVIDENCE - The father of the youngest victim of a 2003 nightclub fire that killed 100 people met yesterday with the new US attorney for Rhode Island to ask federal authorities to investigate.

Dave Kane said he met for about 40 minutes with US Attorney Peter Neronha, three members of Neronha’s office, and an FBI agent.

Kane’s 18-year-old son, Nicholas O’Neill, died in the Feb. 20, 2003, fire in West Warwick, which began when pyrotechnics used for the rock band Great White ignited foam that the club’s owners had used as soundproofing.

Kane and other families have contended in the past that the investigation into the fire, spearheaded by state authorities, had been tainted by corruption and ineptitude. For example, families have questioned why the investigation did not focus on town authorities or the band’s leader, Jack Russell.

Club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian and Great White tour manager Dan Biechele were the only people ever charged. The town and Russell settled civil lawsuits against them without admitting wrongdoing.

A spokesman for the US attorney’s office would not comment on the discussion, and a spokeswoman for the FBI would not confirm whether there was meeting or whether they would investigate.

Kane would not be specific about what they talked about, but said they discussed decisions that were made by state and local investigators before, during and after the fire that “seemed motivated by an attitude of corruption, by an attitude of protecting each other.’’

“I didn’t bring them any smoking gun, understand, but I brought them some information that they seemed to be interested in,’’ he said.

Kane said prosecutors specifically told him they could not say whether they would investigate, but listened intently and said they would consider it. They explained to him that some of the issues he raised would fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI, Kane said. They also invited him to come back anytime, and to follow up with the FBI agent who was present, Kane said.

Andrew Horwitz, a professor at Roger Williams University School of Law in Bristol, who has followed the case closely, said he thought it was unlikely that federal authorities would investigate. The federal government typically prosecutes criminal activity that crosses state borders only, and Horwitz said it would be a stretch to find a federal issue in this case. He said he has seen no convincing evidence of a cover-up, and prosecutors cannot go after investigators simply for doing an allegedly bad job.

“Lots of people do their jobs poorly; lots of people make mistakes,’’ he said. “We don’t tend to criminalize that.’’

Kane said he was gratified that Neronha and his colleagues were gracious and appeared to be listening. “The victims of this fire have given up all hope that there will be justice,’’ Kane said. “This meeting has helped me to realize that there are people who are still concerned about this and will follow up.’’