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 fewer than 10 years in prison, ending a yearslong legal saga that followed the deaths of 36 people inside the Ghost Ship warehouse.
Relatives of the victims were told Wednesday morning that Derrick Almena will be sentenced to nine years in state prison instead of facing a third trial on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to two relatives of victims who lost their lives in the 2016 blaze.
Prosecutors had accused Almena of extreme negligence, arguing he turned the bare-bones East Oakland warehouse into a death trap 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.
There were nearly 100 people 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 first stood trial in 2018, but a negotiated plea 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 COVID-19 pandemic has severely restricted court operations throughout California.
Calls and emails to the Alameda district attorney’s office and Almena’s defense attorney were not immediately returned Wednesday.
While the offer described by the victims’ relatives would see Almena sentenced to nine years in prison and three years of probation, he will likely spend only a few years in prison since he has been in custody since his July 2017 arrest.
“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 Los Angeles Times. “Thirty-six people are dead because of Almena’s hubris.”
A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Jan. 22, according to Grace Kim, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend the last trial on behalf of her cousin, Ara Jo, who also lost her life in the fire.
“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.©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.