OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A co-defendant in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire will remain in custody unless he can raise the $750,000 bail a state judge set for him at a hearing Friday.
Derek Almena’s defense attorneys had asked the court to release their client without posting bail or to at least reduce his $1 million bail to $100,000, an amount they said he could afford.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Kevin Murphy refused their requests, citing concerns that Almena might flee to Lake County in Northern California, where he and his family moved after the deadly Dec. 2 fire. Instead, the judge reduced Almena’s bail and imposed conditions, including ankle monitoring and regular progress reports.
Co-defendant Max Harris’ bail was reduced to $750,000 last week. He and Almena remain in custody at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin.
“The protection of the public is the primary consideration,” Murphy said before handing down his ruling.
Almena and Harris, who both lived at the Ghost Ship warehouse and collected rent from tenants, were arrested June 5 and criminally charged with 36 counts each of involuntary manslaughter – one count for every person who died while attending a dance party at the Oakland warehouse when it burned down.
The Ghost Ship did not have the proper permits to be used as a residential space or an entertainment venue. But as many as 25 artists and musicians lived in RVs and improvised bedrooms on the building’s first floor, and 100 people attended the party on its second floor the night of the fire.
Prosecutors accuse Almena and Harris of knowingly creating a “fire trap” by allowing individuals to illegally live and throw parties at the warehouse, making electrical repairs without permits and stuffing the building with flammable materials without taking basic fire safety precautions like installing lighted exit signs.
Harris, who planned the doomed party, blocked one of only two stairwells in the building while prepping for the night’s festivities, leaving concertgoers on the second floor with only a homemade, ramshackle staircase as an escape route, prosecutors say.
Almena’s attorney Tony Serra called Murphy’s ruling “outrageous” Friday, saying his client would not be able to pay the newly set bail. Their next step will be to try to raise the money from Almena’s friends and supporters, he said.
“He’s not a flight risk, he’s got three young children who he loves,” Serra said after the hearing. “We do extend to the families of the victims our utmost compassion and sympathy, obviously their loss is a disaster. But that’s not a reason to impose punitive bail.”
Almena and Harris, along with the Ghost Ship’s owner and a slew of other individuals and businesses connected to the warehouse, also face a consolidated wrongful death lawsuit in state court brought by the families of the fire’s 36 victims. The families recently added the city of Oakland, Alameda County, and the state of California as defendants in the action.
“We are very pleased that they will not be coming home to their families,” Mary Alexander, the lead attorney in the civil action, said of Almena and Harris after the hearing. “These young people who lost their lives will never come home to their families.”
While the victims’ families primarily blame Almena for the fire, Almena’s defense team has accused prosecutors of bringing criminal charges against their client to cover for the “real culprits” – Pacific Gas & Electric, the Oakland Fire Department, and city building inspectors – who they say failed to monitor the dangerous flow of power to the building and knew people lived there but took no action.
They also accused Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley of charging Almena in the high-profile case to advance her ambitions of becoming state attorney general, and of trying to shield the county from liability in the civil suit.
In response, O’Malley’s office has said that it only files criminal charges “when there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt” that a defendant is guilty.
Almena and Harris will enter pleas in the case on Sept. 13.
“Even though the charges are grave, he will confront them,” Serra said of his client. “We are optimistic.”