A Northern California judge on Friday rejected the plea deals for two men charged with dozens of counts of involuntary manslaughter in a fire that swept through an electronic music concert at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, killing 36 people.
The surprise move came a day after tearful relatives of the victims urged Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer to reconsider the plea deals for property manager Derick Almena and Max Harris, who planned the concert the night of the fatal fire, calling the agreements a “sweetheart deal” and a “slap on the wrist.”
The fire broke out during a Dec. 2, 2016, concert, trapping scores of attendees inside. All of the victims, ages 17 to 61, died of smoke inhalation, according to coroner’s reports.
Almena, 48, the property manager who converted the Ghost Ship warehouse into an artist’s residence and underground concert venue, had agreed to plead no contest and accept a sentence of nine years in prison and three years of supervised release.
Max Harris, the self-described “creative director” of the warehouse, had agreed to spend six years in custody and four years on supervised release.
In court Friday, Cramer said he had reviewed hundreds of pages of files in the case, including a letter Almena wrote to a probation officer where he described himself as a victim. Cramer said Almena had not shown enough remorse, according to local media.
The agreement for Harris was sound, Cramer said, but the pleas were considered a package deal.
Both men will now be tried for their roles in the 2016 fire unless they reach a new agreement.
“If I could give you my children’s lives, I would,” Almena told the victim’s families in the courtroom Friday, according to local media. He also offered to have his body tattooed with flames and the faces of the victims.
“I am guilty,” Almena said. “I am guilty for believing we were safe. I am guilty for allowing it. I am guilty for not being there and sharing your children’s fate.”
Harris told the courtroom that he was “deeply sorry,” according to KTVU. “I never would have begun to imagine that any of my actions over time would have led to this. It’s completely unfathomable.”
“The victims’ families are very adamant, and I empathize with their perspective, even though I think it’s a little bit irrational,” Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra, told reporters outside court Friday. “They want 36 years.”
Serra could not be reached by phone for comment Friday. He told the Associated Press that the case has “weaknesses,” and that he wants prosecutors to consider another plea deal.
Prosecutors have alleged that Almena and Harris allowed as many as 25 people to live at the illegally converted warehouse without providing fire suppression equipment, filled the warehouse with flammable art and furniture, and blocked the few fire exits.
The night of the fire, Harris rented the upstairs area in the warehouse to a promoter and was there to oversee the party, prosecutors said. They accused him of blocking off a second stairwell that had served as an exit, leaving guests with only one exit when the blaze broke out.
The building’s power went out soon after the fire started, and the concert-goers trying to flee had to climb down a narrow wooden staircase that some witnesses described as a “gang plank.” Prosecutors said Almena had ordered the illegal construction of that staircase.
Almena had advertised the building on Craigslist as a “hybrid museum, sunken pirate ship, shingled funhouse, and guerrilla gallery.” He lived in the Ghost Ship with his girlfriend, Micah Allison, and their three children, all of whom survived.