HOUSE ARREST can get a bit complicated. Take the case of Pier 34 defendants Michael Asbell and Eli Karetny.

A month after the two men were sentenced to house arrest by Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper, the electronic-monitoring system is either just now being set up or still has to be.

In the case of Karetny, who lives in Cherry Hill, the holdup has been that Camden County wants Philadelphia to sign an indemnification agreement saying the city won't sue Camden if anything were to happen to Karetny under its surveillance, David Lawrence, Philadelphia's court administrator, said.

As for Asbell, who lives in Merion, Montgomery County's probation department, which will supervise him, discovered a different snafu: Asbell had too many mirrors in his house.

Michael F. Hamel, chief of adult probation in Montgomery County, said yesterday that the mirrors would have interfered with the electronic-monitoring receiver either because they would cause the signals to reflect and bounce back or because a metallic component in the mirrors would block the signals.

In his 37 years in the probation office, Hamel said, this was the first time he could recall that mirrors had to be removed from a house. "It just happens that he had a lot of mirrors," Hamel said.

Asbell, who owned Pier 34, was sentenced to 11 to 22 months of house arrest after he pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter and other offenses in the May 2000 deaths of three women.

Karetny, who operated Heat nightclub on the pier, had pleaded guilty to the multiple counts of involuntary manslaughter and recklessly endangering another person. He was sentenced to nine to 18 months of house arrest.

Lawrence said Wednesday that it was not clear yet whether Philadelphia will sign the indemnification agreement, but that both sides are trying to resolve this matter quickly. If an agreement isn't reached, the judge will have to decide whether Karetny needs to move into Philadelphia so the city's probation department can monitor him, he said.

Sources said that if ordered to do so, Karetny would have to rent an apartment here and pay for it at his own expense.

At his modest aluminum-siding-and-brick home Wednesday, Karetny, 66, declined to talk.

"I can't go past here," he said, waving at his closed front storm door, which he did not open.

As two small brown dogs barked near his feet, Karetny politely said he was sorry, but he couldn't speak about his case.

His lawyer, Frank DeSimone, said earlier: "Eli will do everything he has to do with the courts to comply, and has been. He hasn't left the house except to go to the doctor's one time."

Asbell on Wednesday did speak briefly about his life under house arrest - and about his mirrors.

Initially, he wasn't home, but he had permission to leave that day. When Asbell, driving a red Ford Focus, returned home at about 4 p.m., he said he had had to go into Center City to give a deposition on a business matter not related to the Pier 34 case.

Inside his home, he said seven or eight larger-sized mirrors had to be removed from areas such as the bathrooms, hallway, closets and his bedroom.

"Nothing on the ceilings," Asbell, 65, joked. "I'm too old for that."

Asbell said he and his wife had those mirrors for decoration - they make small rooms look larger. (The few rooms seen in the house during the interview, including the kitchen with its green-and-white wallpaper, were smaller and more modest-looking than one might imagine by standing outside the two-story, stone French-country-style house.)

His first month of house arrest, Asbell said, has been "very painful. It's a loss of freedom. . . . It's a psychological imprisonment. Sure, it's nicer to sit in your own home than in a jail cell. But, it's still imprisonment."

Asbell said he has mostly been conducting work in his home office running his two companies, Asbell & Associates and Ascott Investment Corp. - maintaining existing real-estate developments and handling investments.

He's not idling about, watching TV. And, no, he isn't allowed to swim in his backyard pool.

After the electronic ankle bracelet is placed on him and the electronic-monitoring receiver is set up in his home - all expected to be done today - Asbell said he will be allowed to leave his house for some business meetings if he receives permission from Judge Woods-Skipper and the Montgomery County probation office.

"You still have a right [to] a livelihood," he said.

Asked whether he could conduct such meetings by telephone or by videoconference, Asbell replied, "Some meetings you can't do that way." He said that there are "real-estate people, development people, city people, government people" with whom he may have to meet.

Thomas Bergstrom, Asbell's lawyer, said yesterday that Asbell will also be allowed to go to church and to the doctor, if needed, as long as he obtains permission. He said he believed such procedure was normal, not an exception made for Asbell.

The judge also ordered the two men to each do 1,000 hours of community service, mentoring low-income high-school students in business entrepreneurship and ethics. They can do their own teaching or find others to teach, the judge had said.

Asbell said he could start his community service in another month. He gets to choose which Philadelphia inner-city school students he will work with, he said.

On May 18, 2000, a section of Pier 34 with Heat nightclub on it collapsed, sending customers and workers tumbling into the murky Delaware waters. DeAnn White, 25, of Germantown, and Monica Rodriguez, 21, and Jean Marie Ferraro, 27, of Cherry Hill, drowned in the river, trapped under wooden debris.

Gail Ramsey, DeAnn's oldest sister, wasn't happy to hear about the surveillance delays: "Certainly, the judge's sentence, no matter how light, should be enforced," she said. "Did no one anticipate an inability to enforce a sentence before it was rendered?"

She added: "The judge went above and beyond in accommodating the criminals without much consideration for what brought us to trial in the first place - the defendants' intentional negligence causing loss of life."

A jury last year deadlocked in the two men's trial. At the start of an expected retrial in May, the defendants entered their pleas. *