Ghost Ship warehouse founder to receive plea deal in fire that claimed 36 lives
The founder of the Oakland arts collective that became the site of one of the deadliest fires in California history will receive a plea deal in which he will serve less than 10 years in prison, ending a years-long legal saga that followed the deaths of 36 people inside the Ghost Ship warehouse.
Relatives of the victims were told Wednesday morning that Derick Almena will be offered a deal that would see him sentenced to nine years in state prison instead of facing a second trial on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to several relatives of victims who lost their lives in the 2016 blaze.
Almena was released from custody because of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and prosecutors told victims he will receive credit for most of the nine-year sentence already since he had been jailed for nearly three years after his July 2017 arrest. Under the terms of the deal, Almena will be allowed to serve out the rest of his sentence under house arrest, the victims said.
Prosecutors had accused Almena of extreme negligence, arguing he turned the bare-bones East Oakland warehouse into a deathtrap 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 during a concert.
Nearly 100 people were inside at the time, and prosecutors said Almena’s co-defendant, so-called creative director Max Harris, had closed off one of only two exit routes, forcing victims fleeing the fire to navigate a rickety staircase made of wooden pallets.
Almena and Harris were arrested in 2017, but their journey through the legal system has been marked by starts and stops that have often frustrated relatives of the victims. The pair were first offered a plea agreement in 2018: Almena and Harris would have been sentenced to nine and six years in prison, respectively, but would have served less time than that because they would receive credit for their time spent in county jail. But the deal was thrown out by an Alameda County Superior Court judge after several of the victims’ relatives argued the sentence was too light.
A four-month trial in 2019 ended with Harris being acquitted on all charges. But only 10 jurors voted to convict Almena, resulting in a mistrial. The case has hung in limbo ever since, as the pandemic has severely restricted court operations throughout California.
The plea deal still has to be accepted during a hearing scheduled for Jan. 22. A judge has previously issued a gag order in the case, so neither the district attorney’s office nor Almena’s defense attorney could comment on the plea agreement.
“I am depressed that such a light sentence was agreed upon,” Colleen Dolan, whose daughter Chelsea died in the blaze, wrote in an email to The Times. “Thirty-six people are dead because of Almena’s hubris.”
Grace Kim, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend the last trial on behalf of another victim, her cousin Ara Jo, said many of the parties on the call with prosecutors Wednesday were stunned to hear the terms of the deal offered by prosecutors.
“Most family members were in disbelief that for 36 lives lost and one person pretty much terminally ill for the rest of their lives, this is all Almena gets for disregarding safety standards and creating that firetrap,” Kim said.
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