By Emanuella Grinberg
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NEWARK, New Jersey (COURT TV) -- Two former college roommates charged with setting a dorm fire that killed three people at Seton Hall University reached a plea agreement as their trial began on Wednesday.
Sean Ryan and Joseph T. LePore were accused of igniting a banner on a couch in a third-floor lounge at the Roman Catholic school in South Orange, New Jersey.
The fire killed three students January 19, 2000, and led New Jersey to enact the nation's first mandatory dormitory sprinkler law.
LePore and Ryan could have faced life in prison if a jury convicted them of murder, arson and assault charges.
Essex County prosecutors alleged that around 4:30 a.m. on January 19, 2000, the defendants set fire to a paper banner that they tore off a bulletin board in a lounge area of Boland Hall. The flames quickly spread to three couches and within minutes, the north wing of the dorm's third floor was engulfed in toxic smoke.
Most of the students escaped with injuries from smoke inhalation to permanent disfigurement, but freshmen students Frank Caltabilota Jr., John Giunta and Aaron Karol, all 19, died in the blaze.
Prosecutors had suggested that the defendants were motivated by a grudge against their dorm supervisor in a prank that went awry.
LePore and Ryan, now both 26, are also accused of withholding information from police and tampering with witnesses to conceal their involvement.
Another childhood friend, Santino Cataldo, has also been indicted on obstruction and witness-tampering charges for allegedly lying to authorities about the defendants' involvement.
The three are also accused of contacting an alleged co-conspirator and telling him to lie about their whereabouts the night of the fire. Cataldo will be tried separately.
Lawyers for the defendants, who pleaded not guilty, did not return calls for comment. But in numerous challenges to the indictment, defense attorneys have pointed to a lack of eyewitnesses or physical evidence linking the defendants to the crime.
The long-awaited case has gained national attention over the past six years -- not just for the magnitude of the tragedy but also for the manner in which authorities obtained indictments against the defendants in 2003.
A media report from the Newark Star-Ledger in 2003 revealed that authorities worked with former mobster Daniel Ricciardi, who was allegedly dating an acquaintance of the LePore family around the time of the fire, to revive their languishing case.
According to grand jury transcripts obtained by the paper, Ricciardi testified that during a visit to the LePore home, Maria LePore, the defendant's mother, allegedly told him that her son and his friend accidentally set the fire during drunken horseplay.
Based in part on information from Ricciardi, prosecutors secured a court order to plant recording devices and wiretaps in the LePore family's Florham Park, New Jersey, home.
The recordings led to indictments against the defendant's sister, father and mother, who allegedly advised their son to "stay united" with Ryan in denying any involvement.
The recordings allegedly reveal that the family discussed leaving the area when LePore's arrest seemed imminent, according to an indictment.
Charges of hindering apprehension and obstruction against Joseph LePore Sr., Maria LePore and Lauren LePore are on hold pending the outcome of this trial, which is expected to last four to six weeks.
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