IN A SOLEMN, quiet courtroom yesterday, Pier 34 operator Eli Karetny pleaded guilty to involuntary-manslaughter and reckless-endangerment charges in the May 2000 collapse of the pier, which killed three women, and pier owner Michael Asbell pleaded no contest to all charges.

Common Pleas Judge Sheila Woods-Skippe accepted Karetny's pleas, but also found there was sufficient evidence in the case to find Asbell guilty of all charges. Woods-Skipper presided over the trial last fall that ended in a hung jury against the two defendants.

Family members of the three women who drowned May 18, 2000, in the Delaware River - DeAnn White, 25, of Germantown, and Monica Rodriguez, 21, and Jean Marie Ferraro, 27, both of Cherry Hill, - smiled after they heard the judge's finding on Asbell. Some family members had smirked when they heard him enter his "no contest" pleas.

By pleading no contest, Asbell was not contesting the charges, but also was not pleading guilty to the charges.

Woods-Skipper is expected to sentence the two men June 22.

The open pleas, entered after weeks of negotiations between defense attorneys and the district attorney's office, were announced yesterday - on the day jury selection was slated to begin for the retrial. The pleas save the victims' families from having to sit in the courtroom and hear about their loved ones' deaths over and over. They also avert the uncertainty of a jury trial that could have resulted in another hung jury.

For the victims' families, yesterday's pleas provided some satisfaction, but it won't bring their loved ones back.

"Evidently" one of the defendants "is taking responsibility for the death of our daughter, Monica Kristina," Manuel Rodriguez, Monica's father, said outside the Criminal Justice Center after the proceeding.

"We feel kind of numb because we're still grieving our daughter's loss," he added, with his wife, Mary Lou, by his side. "We can't help feeling lost because of this hole we have in our hearts."

Blanche White-Toole, DeAnn's mother, told reporters: "Unfortunately, it was Mother's Day yesterday. It was very, very hard to get through it. The decision today was a good thing. I'm just happy that finally, finally, you can say that somebody is taking responsibility."

One of DeAnn's sisters, Gail Ramsey, offered her thoughts yesterday in writing. At last year's trial, she and other family members were "trying to comprehend why such obvious dangers" - the pier's deteriorating condition, which prosecutors argued the defendants had known about for years - "were concealed from those they [the defendants] invited onto the pier."

Karetny's guilty pleas offer "some comfort," while Asbell's no-contest pleas were "arrogant" and "sad," she wrote.

Earlier, in courtroom 305, Karetny, 66, of Cherry Hill, sat quietly by the defense table before the plea proceeding began. When it was his turn to stand up and enter his pleas, he softly voiced his guilty plea to the involuntary-manslaughter charges, saying it three times, once for each of the three women.

Besides the three counts of involuntary manslaughter, Karetny pleaded guilty to 43 counts of recklessly endangering another person, representing the 43 people, including rescuers, injured after 138 feet of the 557-foot-long pier, with Heat nightclub on it, crashed at about 8 p.m. seven years ago this week. The three women who died were out celebrating at Heat.

Karetny's lawyer, Frank DeSimone, said afterward of the guilty pleas: "As you see, Mr. Karetny pleaded to the nonintentional acts." He added: "Of course, his health had a big factor to it, too."

Since the collapse, Karetny has suffered a heart attack and a stroke.

In the courtroom, Asbell, 64, of Merion, pleaded "no contest" to the three counts of involuntary manslaughter and 43 counts of recklessly endangering another person. He also pleaded no contest to the felony charges of risking a catastrophe and criminal conspiracy.

Prosecutors withdrew the felony charges in Karetny's case as part of his open plea.

Thomas Bergstrom, Asbell's attorney, said afterward of his client's no-contest pleas: "It's an honest plea given his trial testimony. I think it's important that we move on here. . . . We look forward to the sentencing hearing. We have much to say."

Karetny, Asbell, and Asbell's wife, Sucha Order Asbell, who was in the courtroom yesterday, preferred not to comment before the sentencing.

In November, jurors who had heard five weeks of testimony in the trial declared themselves hung after deliberating for six days. Some jurors told reporters they had been split, 10 to 2, in favor of conviction.

After the judge declared a mistrial, assistant district attorneys Jude Conroy and John Doyle vowed to retry the case.

Yesterday, Conroy told reporters that the victims' families have undergone "an incredibly long and incredibly painful, and, as evidenced today, a very public journey." He said the district attorney's office will recommend some jail time for the two defendants.

When tallied consecutively, the maximum sentences for both men, who have remained free after posting bail in 2001, could mean they could spend the rest of their lives in prison. The judge, however, would likely consider their backgrounds for less severe sentences. Each of the involuntary manslaughter charges, first-degree misdemeanors, carries a maximum of five years in prison. *