Retrial in Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 set for March 2020
The manager of the Oakland warehouse that became the scene of one of the deadliest fires in California history will stand trial next year for the third time, as prosecutors again seek to hold him accountable for the 36 lives lost in the 2016 Ghost Ship blaze.
Derrick Almena, 49, will face 36 counts of manslaughter when he returns to court in March of 2020, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson announced during a hearing in downtown Oakland on Friday morning.
A motion to reduce Almena’s bail from $750,000 to $50,000 was also denied, according to Alameda County Asst. Dist. Atty. Teresa Drenick, the office’s spokeswoman. Almena, who has been jailed for more than two years, will return to court in late January before the retrial begins on March 30, Drenick said.
Almena narrowly avoided a conviction following a four-month trial after a jury deadlocked in September. Ten jurors had voted to convict him, but two others called for an acquittal. Max Harris, the Ghost Ship’s so-called creative director, was acquitted of all charges.
Both men were arrested in 2017, roughly six months after a roaring blaze tore through the art space.
Prosecutors had accused Almena and Harris of converting the Ghost Ship building into a death trap through a series of illegal construction projects and shoddy electrical work. The structure was filled with pianos, tapestries, furniture and other items that acted as kindling when the blaze broke out on Dec. 2, 2016. There were nearly 100 people inside for a concert, and prosecutors said Harris had closed off one of only two exit routes, forcing victims fleeing the fire to navigate a rickety staircase made of wooden pallets.
The fire killed 36 people, all of whom died from smoke inhalation. Federal investigators were never able to determine the cause of the blaze and said much of the evidence necessary to make a ruling was destroyed in the fire.
The March 2020 trial will mark the third time prosecutors have sought to convict Almena. After an initial trial in 2018, Almena and Harris had agreed to a plea deal that would have seen them serve nine and six years in prison, respectively. But a judge tossed the agreement after several relatives of the victims made impassioned pleas, contending the sentences were too light.
If convicted, Almena faces 36 years in prison.
J. Tony Serra, Almena’s attorney, said he had hoped Friday would mark the end of the years-long legal saga. Serra believes that Harris’ acquittal and the fact that he now has transcripts of an entire trial to use to pick apart witness testimony against Almena will only strengthen his client’s chances of victory at a third proceeding.
“My first desire obviously is that they dump it, and I’ve said they can’t win,” Serra said. “The victims want closure … but that has fallen on deaf ears.”
Colleen Dolan, whose daughter Chelsea died in the fire, has sat through nearly every moment of the various hearings stretching back more than two years. On Friday, she expressed frustration with Almena and his supporters for bemoaning the idea of a third trial keeping the former professional photographer jailed and away from his family.
“Once again, he’s giving jailhouse interviews trying to make the public feel sorry for him because he misses his family. Derrick’s family lives whether he sees them or not,” she said. “On the other hand, 36 families will never see their children again.”
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