Men plead no contest in deadly California warehouse fire
OAKLAND, Calif. — As grieving relatives of victims watched and sobbed, two men each pleaded no contest Tuesday to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in a devastating fire at a dilapidated California warehouse that occurred during an unpermitted concert.
Under the terms of a plea agreement, Derick Almena could be sentenced to nine years in prison and Max Harris could receive a six-year sentence. A judge will sentence them at a later date.
With good behavior, both men are only expected to serve half their sentences. They have been in jail for a year.
David Gregory, whose 20-year-old daughter, Michela Gregory, was among the 36 victims, said that hearing the defendants say no contest was “some small sense of justice.” Still, he was dissatisfied with the outcome.
“That’s 36 lives, you know,” he said outside court. “We wanted fair justice, and we didn’t get it.”
Authorities say the 48-year-old Almena rented the warehouse and illegally converted it into an entertainment venue and residences that became known as the “Ghost Ship” before the December 2016 blaze.
The 28-year-old Harris helped Almena collect rent and schedule concerts.
Prosecutors say the men turned the cluttered building into a “death trap” with few exits, rickety stairs and dark and dangerous passageways.
During Tuesday’s hearing, the judge had the men say no contest as the name of each victim was read. It was an emotional process that took 30 minutes and saw family members and friends cry quietly when their loved ones were named.
Gregory said he and other families would have preferred a trial and sentences as long as life in prison. He cut off reporters’ questions when they asked how he felt when he heard his daughter’s name read in court.
Prosecutor Autrey James said the two men were convicted “because they acted negligently running that building known as the Ghost Ship.”
James declined to answer questions outside court, saying the case was still active until the men are formally sentenced in August.
Almena’s attorney Tony Serra said his client agreed to the plea bargain to alleviate “the pain and suffering of all parties.”
Serra previously said a plea deal would spare the victims’ families from testifying at a trial where photos of burned bodies and other emotionally fraught evidence would be shown.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators said they could not determine the cause of the blaze.
A typical manslaughter case often results in shorter sentences, Stanford University law school professor Robert Weisberg said, citing a three-year sentence given to a transit officer in the region who mistook his gun for a stun gun and fatally shot a passenger.
‘On the other hand, there were 36 victims,” Weisberg said about the warehouse fire. “This was a manslaughter case that felt like a murder case.”
Almena lived in the warehouse with his wife and three children. The family was staying in a nearby hotel on the night of the fire. Harris also lived in the warehouse and escaped the fire unharmed.