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Coronavirus fears may free Ghost Ship fire defendant from jail

The Ghost Ship warehouse after a fire swept through the building in Oakland in December 2016.
(Associated Press)

A man charged with manslaughter in the Ghost Ship blaze that killed 36 partygoers at a firetrap warehouse in the Bay Area may be released from jail because of the coronavirus outbreak, a judge ruled Wednesday.

An Alameda County Superior Court judge has decided to release Derick Almena from custody at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin and place him in an electronic monitoring program while he awaits retrial, officials said. Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra, told the San Jose Mercury News that there is a strong possibility that officials will release his client.

Almena, 49, has been jailed since 2017. He is charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Dec. 2, 2016, fire that broke out during an electronic music party at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland. Prosecutors allege that Almena, who was the master tenant on the lease, was criminally negligent when he illegally converted the industrial building into a residence for artists and held unpermitted events inside.

The building was packed with furniture, extension cords and other flammable material but had only two exits and no smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinklers, prosecutors say.

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A jury deadlocked on the charges in September and a new trial is scheduled for July. His co-defendant, Max Harris, was acquitted of the same charges.

Almena is scheduled for a court teleconference on Friday and could be released as early as this weekend, probably to house arrest, one of his defense lawyers, Vincent Barrientos, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Eleven cases of COVID-19 have been reported at the Santa Rita Jail. In a report, jail medical staff said Almena’s psychological, physiological and physical health were in jeopardy behind bars, Barrientos said.

Teresa Drenick of the Alameda County district attorney’s office said prosecutors have opposed releasing Almena and will seek a court order barring him from contacting witnesses or victims in the case.

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“We strongly disagree with the court’s decision,“ Drenick said.


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