OAKLAND (CBS SF) — The first day of angry, tearful statements filled an Alameda County courtroom Thursday morning as family members and love ones got a chance to speak at the emotionally charged formal sentencing hearing in the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire.
Derick Almena, who rented the warehouse and illegally converted into a residence and entertainment venue, was sentenced to nine years in county jail in a plea deal reached in July. Co-defendant Max Harris, who helped Almena collect rent and schedule for-profit music shows, received a six-year term.
Thursday was the first of a two-day sentencing hearing with those who lost live ones in the December 2016 warehouse fire that claimed 36 lives given a chance to address the court and voice the emotions that have filled their lives since that fateful day.
Inside Department 13, family after family voiced their strong opposition to the plea deal.
Outside the courtroom, Terry Ewing, the boyfriend of victim Ara Jo, said it wasn’t justice.
“This sentence is unfair. It’s unbalanced. It’s negligent,” said Ewing.
“Three months for Almena and two months for Harris for each of those lives was way too short,” said Mary Alexander, the attorney representing 12 of the victims’ families.
Many families asked Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer to dismiss the plea bargain or change the sentencing.
A different, Morris Jacobson, brokered the deal for the defense and prosecution.
Cramer opened Thursday morning’s hearing by saying he expected it to be “a heart-wrenching hearing, as befits the enormous loss in this case.”
Linda Regan, mother of Amanda Allen Kershaw, came from Boston to address the court and the defendants.
“I hope no one ever has to lose a child, it’s the most difficult pain,” she said. “What you did was despicable and you both should pay for that.”
Karen Frieholtz, the aunt of fire victim Michela Gregory, echoed the angry sentiment.
“I’m angry. I’m hurt,” she said. “I’m trying to find it in my heart to forgive you.”
Judge Cramer stopped Colleen Dolan from displaying a coroner’s photo of the charred body of her 33-year-old daughter, Chelsea Dolan.
Cramer politely interrupted Dolan’s angry testimony and gently said he has previously seen the photo. Dolan complied after telling the judge that she “had to kiss that burned body goodbye.”
Almena and Harris had been charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for their role in creating the conditions that lead to the deadly fire inside an aged warehouse during a music event.
During the gut wrenching victims’ statements, Almena looked at each speaker. He even had teary eyes when Gregory’s aunt spoke.
Harris had back towards the speakers and only turned around briefly when Gregory’s mom called him out.
Many of the victims family members were upset at the deal prosecutors struck with the pair. 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.
Susan Slocum, mother of fire victim Donna Kellogg, talked about the impact the loss of her daughter has had on her.
“I lost someone special and I will never, ever be the same,” Slocum said. “The deaths must not be in vain.”
She also said she hoped the tragedy would serve as “a catalyst for change in dealing with Oakland’s housing crisis.”
Slocum said she thought the two defendants “got off easy in their plea deal,” a sentiment echoed by another speaker at the hearing.
Chris Allen, brother of victim Amanda Allen Kershaw, said, “We feel betrayed and don’t feel justice is being fully served here.”
Sami Kopelman, the mother of 34-year-old victim Edmond Lapine, was among those angered by the deal. She will not attend in person, but her victim impact statement will be read out loud by her attorney.
“I don’t want my son’s life or those of the other victims … to be lessened by a sweep aside,” Kopelman told the East Bay Times.
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.
© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Bay City News and The Associated Press contributed to this report.