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Ex-owner of deadly Pier 34 freed from house arrest

A judge yesterday ended house arrest for the former owner of Pier 34 in South Philadelphia, a move that didn't surprise the victims' families, but greatly disappointed them.

A judge yesterday ended house arrest for the former owner of Pier 34 in South Philadelphia, a move that didn't surprise the victims' families, but greatly disappointed them.

After a brief 13-minute proceeding, Common Pleas Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper granted a defense petition to terminate Michael Asbell's confinement in his Merion home.

The decision put an end to the yearslong courtroom saga for families on both sides - those of the three young women who drowned when a section of the pier collapsed on May 18, 2000, and for the defendants.

But it didn't give the families of the victims who died in the murky Delaware - DeAnn White, 25, of Germantown, and Jean Marie Ferraro, 27, and Monica Rodriguez, 21, both of Cherry Hill - any sense that justice was served.

"I just felt disappointed," Blanche White-Toole, DeAnn's mother, said afterward. "But it was what we expected today."

At a hearing last month, Woods-Skipper ended house arrest for co-defendant Eli Karetny, 67, of Cherry Hill, who had operated Heat nightclub on the pier, after he finished his minimum nine-month term.

Asbell, 65, completed the minimum 11-month term of his house-arrest sentence on May 22. The judge said he had fully complied with the house-arrest rules, according to a letter by a Montgomery County probation officer.

Deputy District Attorney Charles Gallagher opposed defense attorney Thomas Bergstrom's petition and asked the judge to keep Asbell under house arrest until the 22-month maximum term of his sentence.

Asbell, asked if he would like to comment as he left the courtroom, said: "I'd have to write a series of books. The judge did the right thing. I'm pleased."

His wife, Sucha Order Asbell, added: "It's very depressing for us. It's a depressing event. We've lived through our share of hell."

Yesterday's hearing was attended by Clyde Toole and Blanche White-Toole, parents of DeAnn, and by John and Eileen Ferraro, parents of Jean Marie. The Rodriguezes, who have moved to Texas, were not in court.

Gallagher said afterward that the families and prosecutors were "extremely disappointed" by the judge's decision.

"The judge had a discretion to rule otherwise today," he said. "She did not exercise that discretion."

Gail Ramsey, the oldest of DeAnn's four sisters, said afterward that she could not bring herself to go to the hearing because of the "favoritism" she felt the judge has given the defendants.

"It's clear . . . they got away with a very light sentence," she said. "They had clear knowledge that pier was dilapidated. No one should have been on that pier."

She said she hopes "the defendants will never take a chance with people's lives again" and that "nobody will turn a blind eye to repairs in their business . . . Hopefully, no one will die the way Monica, DeAnn and Jean died. You can't take chances. Hopefully, we made a difference."

In 2006, Asbell and Karetny, charged with risking a catastrophe, involuntary manslaughter, recklessly endangering another person, and other offenses, went to trial. After hearing five weeks of testimony and deliberating for six days, the Common Pleas jury declared itself hopelessly deadlocked in November.

At the start of what was to be the two men's retrial in May 2007, Karetny pleaded guilty to three counts of involuntary manslaughter and 43 counts of recklessly endangering another person.

Asbell pleaded no contest to the same misdemeanor charges plus felony charges of risking a catastrophe and criminal conspiracy.

On June 22, the judge sentenced Karetny to nine to 18 months of house arrest. She sentenced Asbell to 11 to 22 months of house arrest.

Asbell is now under parole for the next 11 months. After that, he will be on probation for seven years. Both men also were ordered to serve 1,000 hours of community service mentoring low-income high-school students in a business-entrepreneurship program.

Asbell has already started his community service with the City Wide Youth Leadership Agency, a nonprofit organization in North Philadelphia.

Karetny has offered his restaurant-management experience to the Enterprise Center, a West Philadelphia program that helps minority entrepreneurs.

William Mackey, the agency's executive director, said yesterday that Asbell has been serving as its chief development consultant in a project to build an alternative high school. The agency is trying to acquire a city-owned lot on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 10th Street, near the agency's office.

Asbell has "made the project a reality," Mackey said. "He has been accessible, knowledgable. And he's really a tough cookie, too. He ripped our whole project down and put it back together."

Plans for the facility include a first-floor cafe and second-floor classrooms.

Starting in July, Asbell will teach a class of about 25 students once a week for six weeks on subjects ranging from architecture, writing business plans and feasibility studies, Mackey said.

He said Asbell will be at the agency's nonviolence campaign cook-off event next Saturday from 1 to 7 p.m., on Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 10th Street.

As for Pier 34, Louis A. Cicalese - Asbell's best friend who bought the property in February 2006 - said after yesterday's hearing that he eventually plans to develop the pier based on "whatever the market dictates." Asbell will not be part of the pier's future development, he said. *