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March 19, 2008

The band manager whose pyrotechnics display sparked a nightclub fire that killed 100 people in 2003 walked out of prison Wednesday, free to return to his home state of Florida after serving less than half of his four-year sentence.

Daniel Biechele, 31, who tearfully apologized to victims’ relatives before being sent to prison, kept quiet Wednesday as he left the state’s minimum security prison. He got into his lawyer’s car, ignoring questions from reporters across the street, and was driven away.

Biechele’s lawyer, Thomas Briody, said in a statement that Biechele would not make any public statements “out of respect for those people most affected by the fire.”

“He was a private citizen before this tragedy and he wishes to remain so,” Briody said.

Briody has declined to discuss Biechele’s future plans, but officials in Florida have confirmed that he would serve his parole there.

Biechele, the former tour manager for the 1980s rock group Great White, pleaded guilty in 2006 to 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter, admitting he did not have the required permit when he set off flashy pyrotechnics inside The Station nightclub in West Warwick on Feb. 20, 2003.

Sparks from the pyrotechnics ignited flammable foam that lined the walls and ceiling of the one-story wooden roadhouse. Panicked concertgoers became trapped at the club’s front door, and the flames sent out toxic black smoke and created temperatures so high that most of the dead were killed within minutes. More than 200 people were injured in the blaze, the fourth-deadliest nightclub fire in U.S. history.

Biechele was indicted along with the two brothers who owned the nightclub on 200 counts each of involuntary manslaughter. He struck a plea deal with prosecutors to serve four years in prison, plus an additional 11 years suspended and three years probation.

During his sentencing, Biechele choked back tears as he apologized to victims’ families, saying he never intended to hurt anyone and wasn’t sure he could ever forgive himself. After the hearing, family members received individualized handwritten letters of apology from Biechele.

When the parole board unanimously decided in September to release Biechele early, they said he had shown genuine remorse and had the support of the family members of those killed.

Many victims’ relatives say they have appreciated Biechele’s show of contrition and hold him less responsible than the club’s owners or the town fire inspector who failed to cite the club for the flammable foam despite multiple visits.

“I don’t think he had as big a role in what happened that night as some other people, and he was man enough to admit his mistake, show some genuine remorse and do his time with dignity,” said Chris Fontaine, whose son, Mark, died in the fire.

“Here’s a young man who has to live with his actions for the rest of his life,” Fontaine said Wednesday after Biechele’s release. “I think that’s sufficient punishment.”

In Florida, Biechele, who married just before reporting to prison, will be assigned a parole officer and will be living in Casselberry, Fla., in suburban Orlando, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections has said.

Michael Derderian, who is serving a four-year sentence after pleading no contest to involuntary manslaughter for installing the foam, is due out on parole in October 2009. Jeffrey Derderian was spared prison time and sentenced instead to probation and 500 hours of community service. He completed his community service requirement last year with a local fire and rescue company and with a national agency that works for burn survivors.

Courtesy of