OAKLAND (CBS SF) — The judge in the Oakland Ghost Ship Fire case accepted a plea deal Monday from master tenant Derick Almena in the 2016 warehouse fire.

As part of the plea deal, Almena is expected to receive a 12-year sentence. But because of his time served, he will most likely not see the inside of a jail again, as he is expected to serve the rest of his sentence on an ankle monitor at home.

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After he serves that sentence, Almena will then enter a period of three years of supervised release.

During the hearing Monday, the judge took a break after noticing Almena was nodding off and his movements were jerky. A court deputy searched him and when they returned, Almena’s attorney Tony Serra told the court, ‘It’s not an issue of drugs your honor, it’s an issue of pain.”

Serra also read a statement from his client at the hearing: “I am sorry. I am very afraid to say more. I am sick with shame. I am so sorry. My shame cannot stand as any defense, but it’s what I’m responsible for. It’s my fault.”

Earlier Monday, family members of those killed in the fire finally got a chance to address Almena and they didn’t mince words. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the family members were able to confront Almena through a video feed.

Colleen Dolan, who lost her daughter Chelsea in the fire, told Almena she would never forgive him.

“I curse you with the pain in your bones and muscles that comes from clenching in fear as you face the fury of a firestorm coming to consume you,” she said. “I do not forgive you. I never will.”

Family member of Ghost Ship fire victim speaks on a courtroom monitor as Derick Almena looks on. (Sketch by Vicki Behringer)

Another gut-wrenching moment came from Carol Cidlik, mother of Nicole Siegrist.

“Nicole was my only child,” she said. “This horrible crime has changed my life completely.”

Other families had their statements read in the courtroom.

The family of fire victim Sarah Hoda asked the judge to reject the new plea agreement.

“This lenient, slap-on-the-wrist sentence is vastly inappropriate for the crimes Derick Almena committed,” the statement read. “Upholding the DA’s irresponsible plea recommendation would shortchange 36 victims, their families … We vigorously recommend you reject this plea, and honor all the victims legacies by ethically holding criminality to account.”

Meanwhile, the family of fire victim Donna Kellogg said the pain of their loss remains with them every day.

“Not one day goes by without a reminder of our losses that you caused by your negligence, and lack of responsibility that you have shown for other people’s well-being,” the statement read. “You may never know what it is like to think about someone often, remembering the joy of having them be a part of your life. And at the same time, the pain of knowing that you will never see them again, taken far too early in life. I will always know this pain.”

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson acknowledged the fact that the plea deal was deeply unsatisfactory to those whose loved ones died in the fire but said that a new trial would be complicated by the fact that some key witnesses would be unable to appear due to COVID-19 travel restrictions and the difficulty in seating a jury during the pandemic, among other things.
“I know that no family member will find this in any way acceptable and I accept that responsibility,” Thompson said.

“This is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “This one haunts me on a regular basis.”

“In court he was a disaster today. Listening to all the victim impact. Psychologically he will never recover from it,” Serra said later.

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Serra describes his client as completely broken over his role in the death of 36 people as a warehouse hosting a concert went up in flames in December of 2016. While Serra says the prosecution cited the pandemic as one of the reasons for offering a plea deal, he doesn’t buy it.

“From our perspective, that’s a phony rationale. They knew we can hang this case again and that would be a disgrace in their office,” Serra said.

Almena’s attorneys accused Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley of playing both sides of this case by representing the families, yet protecting the City of Oakland. O’Malley issued a statement saying, “From the very occurrence of this tragedy, the families and loved ones of the victims have been at the forefront of our minds. Although this case is now resolved, those who tragically lost their lives that night will be remembered and mourned forever.”

A hearing on Almena’s restitution to the victims in the case is scheduled for April 30.

Families have previously voiced their anger over the possibility Almena may not face jail time and had asked Thompson to toss the deal. A plea deal that was reached in the case almost three years ago that included nine years prison time fell apart when the judge felt Almena did not show remorse for his role in the fire.

The emotional day comes in a case that has taken several twists and turns in the legal system.

Derick Almena courtroom sketch (credit: Vicki Behringer)

A lengthy trial for Almena and co-defendant Max Harris, the warehouse’s artistic director, ended in September 2019 with jurors deadlocked 10-2 in favor of convicting Almena and acquitting Harris of all charges. Harris was released from custody later that day but Almena remained in custody in lieu of $750,000 bail.

During the January hearing, the judge asked Almena “How do you plead?” 36 times, each time for a person who died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.  And 36 times, he pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.

Almena served nearly three years at Santa Rita Jail before he was sent to home confinement in May 2020, when authorities freed non-violent offenders after a COVID outbreak within the facility.

Mary Alexander, the attorney for 11 victims’ families, told KPIX 5 she believes because of the pandemic, Almena will serve whatever remaining jail time at home.

“One of the things is, it’s more difficult now with COVID to try a case and to find jurors who will come in under the circumstances,” Alexander said.

The attorney said her clients disagree with the prosecutors on a plea deal and wanted a trial instead.

“I don’t expect Almena will be spending any more time behind bars and that’s very upsetting to the families.  It’s not punishment.  It’s not accountability,” Alexander said.

The fire occurred on the evening of Dec. 2, 2016, during a dance party at the warehouse on the 1300 block of 31st Avenue. Shoddy electrical wiring sparked the fire that killed 36 people, many young adults.

The Oakland City Council last November approved a settlement giving a total of $399,000 to 12 people who were once residents of the Ghost Ship warehouse before it burned down, according to council records.

That settlement followed the approval in July of $32.7 million, which was given to one victim who survived and some of the families of the victims who died.

Andrea Nakano contributed to this story.
 

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