Teenage jealousy, racial tensions, too much alcohol and a single gunshot: All those elements came together on Aug. 9, 2006. And when it was over, Dano Cicciaro, a white teenager, lay dead, while John White, an African American family man, stood accused of murder.
The incident and the trial that followed would spark racial tensions in a quiet, overwhelmingly white suburb. White was convicted of manslaughter last December, which was just the beginning of the story. Now, in an exclusive interview with "20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas, White says that the incident was a terrible, tragic accident.
In 2004, White, 53, and his family moved to Miller Place, a tranquil seaside suburb on Long Island, N.Y., and his son Aaron entered Miller Place High School as a senior. Aaron White was just one of four black students but he made a big effort to become part of his class and succeed in school. He attended neighborhood gatherings where auto-obsessed teens showcased their rides. Few at those get-togethers were more passionate about cars than 17-year-old Daniel Cicciaro. Known to everyone as Dano, he'd been a regular at his father's garage since he was 8 years old and planned to follow in his father's footsteps.
They were two kids with promising futures, but Dano Cicciaro and Aaron White were about to be set on a tragic collision course. In December 2005, two friends of Aaron's — posing as Aaron in an Internet chat room as a prank — made sexual threats against a local girl named Jennifer Martin.
"It said something along the lines of, 'Let's get to Jennifer Martin's house and rape her,'" recalled Jennifer, who was 15 at the time. "It scared me a lot. It terrified me."
Aaron never told Jennifer that he wasn't involved in the prank, although he told several others, including Jennifer's boyfriend, that he'd never written anything about her.
By the following summer, Aaron, 19, thought the incident with Jennifer had been long forgotten. But on the night of August 9, he was invited to a birthday party for Jennifer's brother Craig at the Martin home. But Jennifer says she was still unaware that Aaron was not the one who had threatened her. "I did not expect to see Aaron White at all," she said. "When he walked in my back door it just sent chills up my spine."
When Aaron arrived at the party shortly after 10 p.m., there were about two dozen teens there, including Dano Cicciaro. Within minutes, Jennifer prompted Dano, a longtime friend of hers, to ask Aaron to leave.
"I just said, okay and I left … it's not my house, not my property," Aaron said. "I have no right to question him."
After Aaron left, Jennifer told Dano about the Internet threat and Dano got angry and decided he was going to call Aaron to confront him. A toxicology report would later reveal that Dano Cicciaro had a blood alcohol level of 0.14 — enough to show that he was intoxicated.
'I Was Really Scared'
According to Aaron, shortly after he left the party, he received a call from Dano, who he says was using racial slurs and threatening him. That conversation, beginning at 10:32 p.m. and less than two minutes long, sparked a series of frenzied phone calls between the two. The argument escalated to the point where Dano made a decision to go to Aaron's home. Dano and a friend left in one car, and were soon followed by a second carrying three more teenagers, including Anthony Simoene and Thomas Maloney, who says he had no idea how bitter the argument had become.
"I was friends with Aaron from high school," Maloney said. "So it was gonna be me talking one friend to another friend, you know. I had no problem being a mediator in the whole situation."
Aaron says the news that Dano and his friends were on their way to his house filled him with dread.
"[I was] really scared," Aaron White said. "I mean, I've never been in a situation before like this. I ran upstairs. I said, 'Dad, wake up. These kids are coming here to beat me up and kill me.'"
Said John White: "It was the sound of his voice. I have never heard Aaron be afraid of anything."
An avid hunter, John White then began to look for one of several guns he kept in the house. As he moved downstairs toward the garage, he says he shouted to his wife Sonia to call 911, but she says she didn't hear him.
At 11:10 p.m., a neighbor's security camera captured two cars moving toward the White's home. The Whites says they saw bright lights shining up their driveway and several angry young men shouting outside."I was paralyzed with fear," Sonia White said. "I never felt like that in my life before."
John White says he thought he and his family were in danger. "When someone wakes you up in the middle of the night you go into a defensive mode; that's what I did."
There would be many disagreements about what happened that night. What is undisputed is that John White made a fateful decision: He picked up a loaded .32-caliber pistol that had been handed down to him by his grandfather. White says he never planned on using the gun. "I wanted to repel them. I wanted them to go away."
As he exited his garage, White was followed closely by Aaron, who'd picked up one of his father's loaded shotguns. The two then walked down their driveway into what they say was a torrent of abuse and racial slurs. Dano's friends deny using racial slurs and they say their headlights faced away from the house.
The argument escalated quickly and Thomas Maloney says he got loud. "I got pissed off. Mr. White pointed the gun directly at my head and started screaming, 'Get outta here, get outta here.' And I'm looking at Aaron with my hands like, up to my side, like,''What is going on?'''
White says he argued back. "And I told them, you're not taking my son, you're not touching my family, and I turned to go back in the house."
That is when White says a horrible accident happened. He claims Dano reached for his firearm and it went off. "[I] never meant to shoot that young man," he said.
But Dano's friends saw things differently. They say that Dano didn't reach for the gun, but slapped it away, and that White then raised the gun again and fired at the unarmed teen. The shot — fired from just a few inches away — traveled through Dano's left cheek up toward his right ear. He collapsed instantly.
'It Was Chaos'
At 11:13 p.m., just three minutes after Dano and his friends had pulled up, the first of two cars were captured on the security camera speeding back down the street. Thomas Maloney followed a minute later in his Ford Cobra, carrying his wounded friend. Several calls to 911 capture the panic as Thomas drove desperately toward John Mather Hospital, four miles away. "It was chaos at that point," he said. "I blew every stop sign, every traffic light. I made it from where we were to the hospital, I mean, it felt like in two seconds."
At that point, Dano's friends called his father, Dano Cicciaro Sr.
"Anthony Simeone says that Daniel's been shot," Cicciaro recalled. "Daniel was shot. I'm like, 'what are you talking about? What … what's going on here?' And I flipped out."
When Cicciaro arrived at the hospital, he was shocked by what he saw. "There was blood everywhere. All over the entrance. It was … blood there, I couldn't believe it. I slipped and fell on my son's blood."
The parents of the other boys quickly converged on the hospital, where the Cicciaros were given a last chance to see their son. "And I'm holding his hands," Cicciaro said. "I'm like, Daniel, Daddy's here. Please don't die, Daniel, don't die."
Minutes later, Dano died from his injuries.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 10, 2006, John White was arrested and charged in the death of Dano Cicciaro. It was a stunning shock to a man who'd never before been in trouble with the law. "I didn't believe that this was happening," he said. "I thought they would go away. I didn't believe that I had actually pulled the trigger."
White says he thought the shot was fired "by somebody else grabbing at the gun, and me pulling back."
By the time White's trial on the charge of second-degree manslaughter began in November last year, public opinion was evenly divided. Some believed he'd acted lawfully to protect his family from a real threat, while others believed he'd turned a teenage squabble into an unnecessary tragedy.
"John White was in an unfortunate and a difficult situation that night," prosecutor James Chalifoux said. "The way that he reacted to that situation was reckless and was unreasonable, and caused the death of Daniel Cicciaro."
Chalifoux acknowledged the defendant's excellent reputation as a churchgoing family man, but he also argued that there was another side to John White, a man who kept a variety of weapons in his home. The prosecution also pointed out that no one in the White home called the police that night, although the White family had dialed 911 as many as fifteen times in the two decades prior to the shooting.
Chalifoux challenged White's statements that he'd had just a few frantic minutes to prepare for the arrival of Dano and his friends, pointing to a phone call Aaron had received that night. "We had the testimony of Aaron White, who, at trial said, that after the telephone call ended, he immediately ran inside his home and wakened his father. Now, according to the phone records of Aaron White, that call ended at 10:47 p.m.," he said.
That, the prosecution argued, would have given John White about 20 minutes until Dano arrived around 11:10 p.m., more than enough time to ensure that the police had been called. "I didn't have twenty minutes," White maintained. "I woke up, put a pair of pants on, I look out the window and the first car was pulling up."
White also testified that Dano and his friends were advancing on his home, driven back only at the point of a gun. But the boys say they were not even on White's property. "I was hundred percent aware of not being on the White's property," Thomas Maloney said.
"If Dano and his friends were heading up the driveway, they moved back in a hurry — when police photographed the crime scene early the next morning the blood stains indicated that Dano was nowhere near the house when he was shot," Chalifoux said. "According to the physical evidence, Daniel Cicciaro, at the time he was shot, was either in the street or at most twelve to eighteen inches onto the apron of the defendant's driveway."
And what about John White's reaction immediately after the shooting? A police officer on the scene testified that John White's first words to him were "I did what I had to do." And by all accounts, the Whites made no effort to help Dano as he lay wounded. John White says he was in shock, but Dano's mother Joanne believes this is proof the shooting was not an accident. "If it was an accident, what's your first reaction? 'Oh my God, what did I do? Oh my God, I can't believe it, I'm so sorry.' Did he do that? No. He very deliberately just turned around, walked back up his driveway, like nothing, while my son is there, bleeding in the street. That's no accident. That's murder."
But the defense, including attorney Fred Brewington, insisted that it was an accident and that John White's actions were entirely justified by the lethal threat he faced. "We don't want to delude ourselves here; they didn't go here to shake hands and sit down and play tiddly winks," Brewington said. And White says that Dano and his friends acted little differently than the lynch mobs that once haunted his family in the old South, forcing him to act. "This was a group of people that acted as if they were white supremacists or whatever you wanna call them, skinheads."
On Dec. 22, 2007, after four days of deliberation, a jury found White guilty of manslaughter. "We were just so relieved that they understood the truth," Dano's mother, Joanne Cicciaro, said. Dano Cicciaro Sr. admits his son should have done things differently that night. "He shouldn't have drank and he shouldn't have gone to John White's house. He'd be alive today."
On March 19, 2008, John White was sentenced for his crime, which carried a maximum sentence of 22 years in prison. The judge noted that White had no prior record and was by most accounts an honest and decent man. She went on to say that the boys who went to the White's home that night did bear some responsibility in the case. Then, she dropped the bombshell: John White would receive 2 to 4 years in prison.
The Cicciaros reaction was explosive. "I'm totally disappointed in this justice system," Dano Sr. yelled shortly after the sentence was read. "Suffolk County sucks!"
John White's attorneys immediately announced an appeal and he was freed on bail, but seemingly forever imprisoned with the Cicciaro family in a tragic case that continues to unfold.
Said White: "I feel remorse for what has happened. I'll always live with that. I feel for that family as well as I feel for mine. I don't know what is gonna come of this."