Defendants in Ghost Ship fire take plea deals, avert trial

Defendants in Ghost Ship fire take plea deals, avert trial
KGO; Allen Weddington via CNN

The two men facing dozens of manslaughter charges stemming from the 2016 fire at Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse that killed 36 people, pleaded no contest Tuesday, reaching a deal with prosecutors.

As a result, Derick Almena and Max Harris were each found guilty of all 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to Alameda County assistant district attorney Teresa Drenick. The plea deal means that Almena and Harris will not go on trial and will be sentenced on August 9.

The two men had been charged after a fire broke out during an electronic dance party on December 2, 2016, killing 36 people who could not escape from the dilapidated two-story warehouse in Oakland. One of two exits had been blocked, authorities said.

Almena, who was the leaseholder of the warehouse, is expected to be sentenced to 12 years — nine in custody and three under mandatory supervision.

Harris, a tenant who helped collect rent and acted as a creative director at the warehouse, is expected to receive a 10-year sentence — six years in custody and four on mandatory supervision.

But they may spend less time in jail than that.

Tony Serra, a defense attorney for Almena, told reporters that his client will likely be released in 3.5 years after time served and credits for good behavior.

“This was not a plea entered into because of legal necessity. We had from my perspective and from many lawyers’ perspectives, we had viable defenses,” Serra said, according to CNN affiliate KGO. “This is a plea that’s been entered into as a moral imperative to eliminate all the trauma and pain and suffering that everyone who touches this case endures.”

“It was an act of ethics and morality from my client and not from a concept of culpability,” Serra said.

The Ghost Ship fire is one of Oakland’s deadliest blazes and the worst nightclub fire in more than a decade in the United States, in terms of the number of victims.

Had the men gone on trial and been convicted on all charges, they could have faced up to 39 years in prison.

The plea agreement didn’t sit well with one of the victims’ families.

“To hear them plead guilty basically was what we wanted to hear, but the sentencing part of it, that’s questionable,” David Gregory told reporters. His daughter Michela died in the warehouse fire.

“We just wanted some justice, just not to be two years or four years with time served… We don’t feel that in our opinion, that was fair justice,” he said.

All 36 victims’ names were read aloud in court Tuesday.

Prosecutors had said that the two men were reckless, creating a risk of death. They had allowed up to 25 people to live in the Oakland warehouse, stored large quantities of flammable materials stacked floor to ceiling, and deceived officials and building owners about that fact, prosecutors said when charges were announced against Almena and Harris last year.

“Today is a bittersweet day that Max is able to move forward but we also recognize that the families are only beginning their process towards healing and we also understand that they may never get there,” Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris told KGO.

The two men also face civil litigation.