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Pier 34 owner, operator enter pleas, avoid retrial in collapse

In a move to avert a retrial, the owner and operator of Pier 34, which collapsed in May 2000 and killed three women, entered pleas this morning.

The scene on May 19, 2000, the day after Pier 34's collapse into the Delaware.
The scene on May 19, 2000, the day after Pier 34's collapse into the Delaware.Read moreDavid Maialetti / Daily News

In a move to avert a retrial, the owner and operator of Pier 34, which collapsed in May 2000 and killed three women, entered pleas this morning.

Eli Karetny, 66, of Cherry Hill, the operator, pleaded guilty to three counts of involuntary manslaughter and a count of recklessly endangering another person. Forty-three people were injured when the pier fell into the Delaware River.

In return, prosecutors withdrew a conspiracy charge and another of risking a catastrophe.

Pier owner Michael Asbell, 64, of Merion, pleaded no contest to three counts of involuntary manslaughter, risking a catastrophe, conspiracy and recklessly endangering another person.

Common Pleas Court Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper scheduled sentencing for June 22. Each count of involuntary manslaughter could carry a prison term of 21/2 to 5 years.

The case went to trial last fall, but jurors indicated Nov. 8 that they were hopelessly deadlocked. The judge declared a mistrial - greatly disappointing family members of the three women who died and leaving the defendants facing another trial.

Monica Rodriguez, 21, and Jean Marie Ferraro, 27, both of Cherry Hill, and DeAnn White, 25, of Germantown, drowned when the pier collapsed the night of May 18, 2000. They had gone to Heat nightclub on the pier that night to celebrate various milestones: a first day on the job, a promotion, and an upcoming birthday. All three worked at the New Jersey State Aquarium in Camden.

Then, about 8 p.m., about 138 feet of the 557-foot-long pier fell into the Delaware River, sending the three women and about 40 other club patrons and employees tumbling into the murky waters.

The police Marine Unit, firefighters, and other rescuers rushed to the scene and encountered chaos. People were screaming, with some trapped under splintered boards in the river. Others floated downstream, clinging onto the pier's wood debris. Still others tried climbing onto a fallen piece of the pier's concrete seawall, scrambling to get back onto the pier on their own.

Rescuers were able to save all - except the three women - who fell into the water.

The two defendants were charged with three counts of involuntary manslaughter and other offenses.

In the November trial, one juror said the panel was deadlocked 10-2 in favor of conviction. He said the two holdouts cited the lack of letters or documents indicating that Asbell and Karetny were warned that the pier was in danger of imminent collapse, and they would not budge.

The thrust of the prosecution's case was that Asbell and Karetny were warned since 1986 by various engineering firms that the pier was slowly deteriorating. Prosecutors argued that the two defendants did not spend the money needed for substantial pier repairs and instead paid only for cosmetic fixes.

The prosecution also contended that the two men were warned hours before the pier collapsed that it was in imminent danger of coming down.

Jesse Tyson, a key prosecution witness and marine construction expert, testified that he warned Karetny and Asbell on the afternoon of May 18, 2000, that the pier could collapse that night or the next morning at low tide.

During the trial, defense lawyers repeatedly told jurors that Tyson did not send anything in writing to their clients about the pier's imminent collapse, and did not make any warnings in person, as Tyson had contended. Asbell and Karetny - who both took the witness stand on their own behalf - and other defense witnesses testified that no such warning was given.

The defense also contended that the two men would not have risked anyone's life, especially that of one of their own sons, by opening the pier that night if they knew it could be dangerous.

Karetny's son, Abraham Karetny, 31, was working that night on the Moshulu restaurant ship, which was docked off the pier. Abraham Karetny testified that he went onto the pier and into Heat nightclub for a few minutes shortly before the pier collapsed.

Tyson, 80, said that he did not need to send anything in writing to Karetny and Asbell because he had given them an oral warning. He also testified that since he and others began inspecting Pier 34 in the mid-1990s, Karetny and Asbell were aware that the pier was deteriorating.

Frank DeSimone, Karetny's lawyer, said after the November trial that "after 200 exhibits, the commonwealth couldn't convince 12 people of my client's involvement in the matter. There had to be reasonable doubt in some of the jurors' minds. I feel sorry for the victims, obviously, and I feel sorry for my client. It's very difficult for everybody. "

Thomas Bergstrom, Asbell's lawyer, said at the time: "Obviously, a number of jurors were convinced there was probable doubt in this case."

The November jury had deliberated for about three hours on its sixth day of deliberations before declaring itself deadlocked. Overall, the panel deliberated for about 26 hours over six days.

In addition to the involuntary manslaughter counts, the defendants were also charged with 43 counts of recklessly endangering another person, risking a catastrophe, and criminal conspiracy.