Under a plea deal, Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena will serve out the remainder of a 12-year prison sentence on an ankle monitor.
OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — Derick Almena, the master tenant of a cluttered Oakland warehouse where 36 partygoers perished during a 2016 fire, will serve out the rest of a 12-year sentence at home with an ankle monitor under a plea deal that avoids a second trial.
“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson told the victims’ families at Almena’s sentencing Monday. “I’ve listened to the balance of things and I want to be able to make it better.”
Almena, now 50 years old, pleaded guilty in January to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for a deadly fire at the Ghost Ship, an Oakland warehouse he illegally converted into a communal live-work space crammed with combustibles.
Almena was jailed in 2017 and released in May 2020 due to coronavirus concerns. Credit for roughly four years of time served and good behavior shaved his sentence down to about a year and a half of home confinement and three years of probation.
The fire tore through the warehouse on Dec. 2, 2016, while 100 danced to electronic music at a concert on the illegally constructed upper floor. According to police, the space had only two exits and no smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinklers.
Thompson declared a mistrial in September 2019 after a jury hung 10-2 in favor of a guilty charge. The same jury acquitted Almena’s co-defendant Max Harris.
Families of the victims urged Thompson to reject the plea deal. But as she ruefully explained, a retrial would be virtually impossible given the logistical obstacles posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thompson had been holding monthly case management conferences with prosecutors and Almena’s defense team to determine whether the case could go forward. As the pandemic raged on, it became less and less likely.
“Every 30 days I had to make good cause findings as to why we couldn’t proceed to trial because of the pandemic, the unavailability of essential witnesses — witnesses we all knew had to be here in order for this case to go forward,” she said, adding that the pandemic has sharply curtailed the number of jurors willing to serve in the case.
“We have citizens who are afraid to come into a courtroom, who refuse to come into a courtroom. I was informed there are witnesses who are no longer with us. People have passed away, who relocated, who are international residents with no way to get back to the area.”
Prosecutors also noted during Monday’s hearing that the 2019 trial, which lasted six months, had received so much publicity that they were doubtful that they could find an impartial jury.
Almena’s attorney Tony Serra read a brief statement that said his client was sick with grief and shame.
“I am sorry. I am very afraid to say more. I am sick with shame. My shame cannot stand as any defense against what I am responsible for. It is my fault. My terrible accumulation of error upon error that shaped and built a place so dangerous,” Serra read on Almena’s behalf. “I did nothing to stop it from killing 36 beautiful souls and destroying countless others in a horrible fire that was fueled by my stupidity and reckless actions.”
Thompson empathized with the families viewing the proceeding over Zoom, saying she had been thinking about what to say to them since December. “I myself have experienced tragedy. I know what it’s like to have a child in their 20s and starting their life and someone coming along and interrupting it. And maybe not taking a life, but taking the life I recognized.”
She later added, “We share our own tragedies with you because we know what it feels like not to make it right. Not to correct things. To have people make assumptions. To have people question you as a parent. Why didn’t you have some place for them to live? Why weren’t they in your care? We would jump in front of a bus for each of our kids, but sometimes we’re not in a position to do so.”
She set another hearing for April 30 to determine how how much restitution Almena will have to pay the victims’ families.
“Although it’s not the outcome that’s preferred, it’s one that’s available,” Thompson said. “And it’s one that doesn’t result in a complete travesty of justice — where there’s no responsibility taken, and where a case could get dismissed. I know no family member will find this in any way acceptable, and I accept that responsibility.”