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Ghost ship defendants plead no contest in deal with prosecutors

The plea agreement was a package deal, meaning both defendants had to accept the offer or neither would get it

By Kimberly Veklerov
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — Two men pleaded no contest Tuesday to involuntary manslaughter charges in the Oakland Ghost Ship fire case, averting what would have been a protracted, high-profile jury trial in favor of a deal with prosecutors.

The no-contest pleas resulted in convictions on all 36 counts.

Defendant Derick Almena, 48, will receive a nine-year sentence in county jail and three years of mandatory supervised release under the deal with the Alameda County district attorney’s office. Co-defendant Max Harris, 28, agreed to a six-year sentence and four years of mandatory supervision. With good behavior, they can each serve half their jail terms.

The plea agreement was a package deal, meaning both defendants had to accept the offer or neither would get it. The proceeding capped off more than a year of hearings for Almena and Harris, who were accused of creating a firetrap that led to the deaths of 36 people during an unauthorized electronic music party Dec. 2, 2016, at the artist collective.

Almena was the master tenant of the warehouse, and Harris helped Almena collect rent and manage events. They were arrested in June 2017 and will get credit for the year they have spent in jail.

“After 18 months, today, finally, Mr. Almena and Mr. Harris have taken responsibility for their actions in the deaths of 36 individuals,” Deputy District Attorney Autrey James said outside of court. “They acted negligently in running that building known as the Ghost Ship.”

The defendants will be formally sentenced during a two-day hearing on Aug. 9 and 10. At that time, relatives of the victims will have a chance to address them. Supporters of Almena and Harris will also be able to speak on their behalf, according to Judge Morris Jacobson of the Alameda County Superior Court, who presided over Tuesday’s court appearance at the René C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland.

Jacobson opened the hearing by outlining all of the rights that Almena and Harris were relinquishing, such as the right to appeal, and asking whether anyone had pressured them into accepting the plea deal. The judge then read the details of all 36 involuntary manslaughter charges, including each victim’s name, and asked the defendants to enter a separate plea for each count.

“I will accept that plea and find you guilty of that charge,” he responded, 72 times, to each man’s subdued “no contest” reply. The process took more than 20 minutes, and parents in the gallery wept as they heard their children’s names.

Most families declined to speak with reporters Tuesday. But David Gregory, who had attended every public hearing in the case and whose 20-year-old daughter, Michela Gregory, was killed in the fire, said he was disappointed in the sentences, which he thought were too lenient.

“It’s not enough,” he said. “Thirty-six lives ...We just wanted some fair justice.”

The defendants could have faced up to 39 years each in prison had they been convicted at trial of all the charges. With time served, Almena could be released in 3½ years and Harris in less than two years.

Prosecutors did not answer questions Tuesday. But the agreement gave them convictions — something that would have been no guarantee from a jury.

Attorney Tony Serra, among Almena’s defense team, said the jail term was fair.

“From my perspective, and from many lawyers’ perspectives, we had viable defenses,” he said. “This was a plea that’s been entered into as a moral imperative to eliminate all of the pain and suffering that everyone who touches this case endures.”

Curtis Briggs, one of the attorneys for Harris, said negotiations to reach the plea agreement were difficult.

“We were committed to the position that Max was not a criminal and shouldn’t be treated like one,” he said. “We had a hard time accepting that he should do any jail time. … We all took very rigid positions.”

Almena and Harris lived in the two-story warehouse with about 20 other people, including Almena’s wife and their young children. The building had no city permits for residency or for the concerts and shows held there.

A months-long investigation by local and federal arson experts could not determine the fire’s cause but found that the building was not equipped with sprinklers or an automatic fire detection system. An assistant fire marshal of the Oakland Fire Department testified during a preliminary hearing that an electrical issue probably ignited the blaze.

Prosecutors said guests and residents were endangered by the warehouse’s makeshift electrical system and floor-to-ceiling load of pianos, wooden sculptures, pallets, motor campers, rugs, benches, tree limbs and tapestries.

The 36 victims, ages 17 to 61, died of smoke inhalation.

The tragedy was the nation’s deadliest structure fire since 2003, when 100 people were killed at a Rhode Island nightclub.

While the inferno in the Fruitvale neighborhood prompted a crackdown on unlicensed live-work buildings across many cities, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and other city leaders took a more cautious approach, expanding the ranks of city inspectors and attempting to work with landlords to fix code violations to minimize tenant evictions.

“Oakland will forever mourn the beautiful lives lost in the Ghost Ship fire,” Schaaf said in a statement Tuesday. “As we move through the judicial process, our city respects the agreements reached among the district attorney, the defendants and the court.”

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