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The master tenant of the Ghost Ship warehouse that caught fire and killed 36 people in 2016 was sentenced Monday to 12 years in prison as part of a plea deal over his role in the tragedy.
Derick Almena pleaded guilty in January to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for his involvement in the deadly blaze that tore through the artist collective in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood during a concert and party on Dec. 2, 2016.
Based on time already served and good behavior, however, he will spend roughly a year-and-a-half in confinement at home, where he has been since last May after being released from jail because of COVID-19 protocols.
After he serves that sentence, Almena will then enter a period of three years of supervised release.
“I curse you with the intense burning hate and flames that scorch all the hair from your body and that peel the skin away from your face.”Colleen Dolan, mother of fire victim
During the sentencing hearing Monday in front of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, the families of people killed in the fire read deeply emotional statements about how the loss of their loved ones forever damaged their lives and urged the judge to reject the plea deal, which they feel is far too lenient.
“I am repulsed by this plea agreement … I am angry at this court,” Keith Slocum, whose stepdaughter Donna Kellogg died in the fire, said before the judge issued her ruling.
Many victims’ family members also had harsh words for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office for agreeing to the deal, accusing prosecutors of failing to vigorously pursue the case in order to protect Oakland police and fire personnel, the city’s planning department and local political leaders.
“Almena and (co-defendant Max) Harris were simply the lowest hanging fruit, the easiest targets, the ones most palatable for a city desperate to get public relations on track and save face,” according to a statement from Sara Hoda’s family that was read aloud during the Zoom-based hearing.
Too little remorse
Many statements also excoriated Almena for his role in the blaze and for what they see as his lack of remorse and failure to take responsibility for his actions.
Colleen Dolan, whose daughter Chelsea died in the fire, cursed the defendant in the hope that it might ease her heartbreak.
“May you, Derick Almena, take on the vision that I see each day and feel the pain in my nightmares. My hope is that in giving these visions to you, I may be free,” Dolan said.
“I curse you with the intense burning hate and flames that scorch all the hair from your body and that peel the skin away from your face,” she said.
The hearing was not without disruption, as it appeared to some family members of victims and the judge that Almena was at times nodding off, had spilled a cup of coffee and was making jerking, erratic movements in his seat.
At one point, Judge Thompson asked if Almena was on prescription drugs and halted the proceedings to figure out what was going on.
Soon, however, the hearing resumed with his lawyer, Tony Serra, saying Almena was simply overcome with emotion while listening to the victim impact statements.
During the jury trial, prosecutors said Harris and Almena created a death trap at the warehouse, which was cluttered with furniture and art and which had no fire sprinklers, smoke alarms, lighted exit signs or stairs that were in good condition.
Prosecutors also alleged that Almena violated the terms of the building’s lease by allowing up to 25 people to live there even though it was zoned for commercial use.
That trial ended inconclusively when jurors, who found Harris not guilty, were unable to reach a verdict regarding Almena’s role in the blaze.
A statement of remorse
During Monday’s hearing, Almena’s lawyer, Tony Serra, read a statement from the defendant in which he expressed regret.
“I am sick with shame,” he said in the statement. “I am so sorry. My shame cannot stand as any defense… It is my fault.”
He said the fire and the deaths of “36 beautiful souls” were “fueled by my stupidity and reckless actions.”
Judge 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.”
A hearing on Almena’s restitution to the victims in the case is scheduled for April 30.