OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A new jury will decide whether Derick Almena is criminally liable for the deaths of 36 people in a fire at the Ghost Ship artist collective, after the judge in the case set a new trial date Friday.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson ordered trial to begin March 30, 2020.
Almena, the master tenant of the warehouse that burned three years ago, faces 39 years in prison if convicted on involuntary manslaughter charges. He will await trial in Santa Rita Jail in the East Bay city of Dublin, as Thompson also refused to reduce his bail currently set at $750,000.
“We’re not afraid of going back to trial,” his lawyer Tony Serra said outside the courtroom, emphasizing that he doesn’t want any plea agreements.
“We want to go to trial. We don’t want to negotiate. Our case is stronger. We’re confident. We will be prepared and in the next trial will prevail.”
Almena is accused of criminal negligence for illegally converting a warehouse into living quarters and party venue crammed with combustible materials with no sprinklers or smoke detectors.
On Dec. 2, 2016, a fire ripped through the warehouse where over 100 people were attending an electronic music concert.
In September, a 12-person jury could not agree on whether to convict Almena, hanging 10-2 in favor of guilt, and Thompson declared a mistrial.
The same jury acquitted Almena’s co-defendant Max Harris, who lived at the Ghost Ship warehouse and helped Almena run the collective.
Brian Getz, who also represents Almena, was heartbroken that Thompson denied his request to reduce Almena’s bail to $50,000, an amount Getz believed his destitute client could pull together with help from friends.
Getz told Thompson that circumstances had changed, and that Almena has no incentive to flee.
“How could he flee? He would never leave his children. He has to stand by his family. They’ve stood by him,” Getz said.
Outside the courtroom, Getz said asking for the reduced bail was difficult in view of the tragedy.
“That was the most difficult bail motion I think I’ve ever prepared. Because preparing for it meant thinking about the loss and the ramifications of that and it’s just unfathomable and it’s the most tragic thing,” he said. “I felt this was a bail motion that had merit because Mr. Almena never intended to hurt anybody.”
But Judge Thompson said she had to consider the fire victims, as well as Almena’s tendency to flout authority.
“I can’t ignore the fact that Mr. Almena in the past has had court orders and Mr. Almena has not abided by directives of authorities. I also have to consider the seriousness of the offense. There were 36 tragic lives lost,” Thompson said.
Getz said he knows some might think Almena isn’t remorseful, but that it isn’t true.
“Every single day he thinks about it. Can you imagine how you would feel if you were in his situation? You can’t not be remorseful for what happened,” Getz said.
Almena’s wife, Micah Allison, held back tears as she talked about the fact that her husband isn’t coming home.
“I’m obviously really sad about this denial of the bail. All Derick wants is to be with his kids. That’s all he’s ever wanted,” she said. “This is a massive tragedy. The remorse that we feel is immeasurable. We will never be the same. There’s nothing that I can do that will take away what happened.”
Marlowe Riley, a longtime friend of Almena, railed against a bail system that favors wealthier defendants.
“What happened to innocent before proven guilty? Why do you have to be rich to post bail” she said, adding, that the victims’ families shouldn’t seek retribution through Almena.
“This was nothing but a tragic accident. If the families are seeking revenge, seek revenge on the world, because the world is a tragic place. And we all have tragedies happen. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it,” Riley said.
But Colleen Dolan, who lost her daughter Chelsea in the fire, said outside the courthouse that the judge got it right.
“He built the Ghost Ship. He made the Ghost Ship into a tinderbox. I fully believe he would flee with this family. I would like him to stay and be held accountable,” Dolan said, adding she is “completely emotionally wrung out” but is ready for the next trial.
“I expect I will be stronger when the next trial begins. I will be there as an advocate for my daughter.”