Two men plead 'no contest' in deadly Oakland 'Ghost Ship' warehouse fire that claimed 36 lives
48-year-old Derick Almena and 28-year-old Max Harris have both pleaded no contest on July 3 to the 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter
Two men who are believed to have been responsible for the horrifying Ghost Ship warehouse fire in California on December 2, 2016, which claimed the lives of 36 individuals, have been sentenced to prison. 48-year-old Derick Almena and 28-year-old Max Harris have both pleaded no contest on July 3 to the 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter. The warehouse's principal tenant, Almena, is scheduled to be sentenced to 9 years behind bars at a county prison along with three years of mandatory supervised release. The concert's creative director, Harris, is scheduled to be sentenced to six years in prison along with four years of mandatory supervision.
It was announced last week that the two men reached a plea deal that allowed them to avoid a high-profile jury trial. The two of them have already spent a year in prison and will get credit for that time behind bars.
If Almena and Harris had gone to trial and if they had been found guilty of all 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, they would have faced an additional 39 years each in jail. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Almena and Harris will be formally sentenced on August 9 and 10 this year in a two-day trial.
According to Judge Morris Jacobson of the Alameda County Superior Court, who presided over the July 3 court appearance at the René C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland, the families of all the victims, who ranged in age from 17 to 61, will be able to address the men in court. People who support the two men will also be allowed to speak in court.
The fire that gutted the illegally-converted warehouse in Oakland claimed the lives of 36 people on December 2, 2016. The victims were all attending an electronic music concert and had become trapped inside the building because the passages had been blocked by piano benches and an inflatable screen.
One of the emergency exit stairwell's had been blocked off while the only one that was free ended up becoming a bottleneck for fleeing concertgoers who were desperate to get off the second floor where the fire originated.
It is still not clear what started the massive fire but investigators believe that the warehouse was filled with highly flammable materials like tapestries and one staircase that was built using wooden pallets. It was also found out that the building itself did not have any sprinklers and was not fitted with an automatic fire detection system. The warehouse was being supplied with electricity from an auto-repair shop nearby.
The two men had been living in the warehouse along with 20 other people that included Almena's wife and children. The authorities have said that Almena had leased the warehouse and had illegally sublet the space for independent artists to live and work. He is also believed to have held for-profit concerts in the building which was not licensed for entertainment.
The night of the fire, Almena had not been in the warehouse and had been, instead, at a hotel with his wife, Micah Allison, and their three children. It was reported that he left Harris in charge.
According to the East Bay Times, both Almena and Harris's jury trial was supposed to start on July 16 but then they reached a plea deal after spending more than 2 hours in the judge's chambers last week negotiating. If it had reached the point that one of the men did not take the plea deal, both of them would have had to stand trial.
Around the time the plea deals for both of them were being discussed in early June, Harris' attorney told the judge that his client wanted to get credit for the time he had already served in prison while Almena's attorney said that his client wanted to go to trial. Prosecutors had spoken to the relatives of the Ghost Ship victims when the plea deal with the judge had ended. When one relative of a victim was asked how he felt about the men getting a plea deal instead of them standing for trial, he said he was "not feeling it"
Kezie Smith's friends, 35-year-old filmmaker Alex Ghassan and his 32-year-old fiancee Hanna Ruax, both lost their lives in the fire. He said: "You knew you had a faulty warehouse. You're responsible for it. If you're going to sit here and try to play victim now, it's too late." Deputy District Attorney Autrey James said outside of court: "After 18 months, today, finally, Mr. Almena and Mr. Harris have taken responsibility for their actions in the deaths of 36 individuals. They acted negligently in running that building known as the Ghost Ship."
Tony Serra, an attorney from Almena’s defense team, said the jail term was fair. He said: “From my perspective, and from many lawyers’ perspectives, we had viable defenses. This was a plea that’s been entered into as a moral imperative to eliminate all of the pain and suffering that everyone who touches this case endures.”
Curtis Briggs, one of Harris' attorneys, said negotiations to reach the plea agreement were difficult, to say the least. He said: “We were committed to the position that Max was not a criminal and shouldn’t be treated like one. We had a hard time accepting that he should do any jail time. We all took very rigid positions.”