OAKLAND (CBS SF) — The two men charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in Oakland’s deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire agreed to no contest pleas Tuesday in exchange for light jail sentences and no prison time.
Derick Almena, who rented the warehouse and illegally converted into a residence and entertainment venue, was sentenced to nine years in return for his plea; while Max Harris, who helped Almena collect rent and schedule for-profit music shows, received a six-year term.
With credit for two years time served and presumed good behavior, they could be released after serving less than half their sentences, according to defense attorneys.
The pair had been charged for their role in creating the conditions that lead to the deadly fire inside an aged warehouse during a music event in 2016. If both men had gone to trial on July 16th and been convicted on all counts, they could have been sentenced to 39 years in state prison.
Before taking their pleas Tuesday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson made sure that Almena and Harris understood the legal rights they were waiving and that he would find them guilty once they pleaded no contest.
In a solemn process that took more than half an hour, Jacobson then read all 36 counts aloud, including the names of all the victims, and Almena and Harris entered their pleas and were found guilty.
Some of the victims’ family members attended the hearing and cried when the names were read.
“To hear them plead guilty, that was what we wanted but the sentencing part of it, that’s questionable,” said David Gregory, father Michela Gregory who died in the fire. “We just wanted some justice, some fair justice. but we don’t feel in our opinion that was a fair justice.”
Tyler Smith and Curtis Briggs, lawyers representing Harris, said the agreement was reached after more than two hours of negotiations Friday. The judge asked lawyers to refrain from discussing details until the defendants appear in court on Tuesday.
The fire quickly destroyed the structure during a December 2016 electronic music performance by Golden Donna, killing 36 attendees who were unable to find exits. Prosecutors claimed Almena and Harris turned the cluttered building into what proved to be a “death trap” with few exits, rickety stairs and dark and dangerous passageways.
Almena, 48, lived in the warehouse with his wife and three children. But the family was staying in a nearby hotel the night of the fire. Harris, 28, also lived in the warehouse and escaped the fire unharmed.
Almena’s attorney Tony Serra said the plea deal will spare the victims’ families from testifying at a trial where photos of burned bodies and other emotionally fraught evidence would be shown.
Victim family attorney Mary Alexander said the search for justice is not limited to Almena and Harris. “Now we will proceed with the civil case and hold others accountable as well.”
© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Bay City News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.