Master Tenant Pleads Guilty to Involuntary Manslaughter in Ghost Ship Fire

The master tenant of a warehouse that had been converted into a ramshackle artists’ collective in Oakland, Calif., pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter on Friday, four years after a fire tore through the building, killing 36 people, court records show.

The master tenant, Derick Almena, entered the pleas in Alameda County Superior Court, avoiding a second trial after his first trial ended without a verdict in 2019.

Mr. Almena was one of two people who had been criminally charged in connection with the fire — the other was found not guilty in 2019 — and his pleas came after several twists in the case had infuriated victims’ families.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office said Friday that it could not comment because of a gag order issued by Judge Trina Thompson. Mr. Almena’s lawyer, Tony Serra, did not immediately respond to messages.

But Mary Alexander, a lawyer representing the families of 13 victims, said the families were outraged with the plea agreement, which she said would allow Mr. Almena to avoid additional time behind bars when he is sentenced on March 8. Mr. Almena was in jail for about three years after he was arrested and charged in connection with the fire; he was released on bail last year.

Ms. Alexander said prosecutors had told the families that although Mr. Almena would receive a nine-year prison sentence, he would be credited for time served and good behavior, which could allow him to serve the remainder of his sentence — roughly a year and several months — at home with an ankle bracelet. After that, he would be expected to complete three years of probation, Ms. Alexander said.

“This is really a crushing blow for the families,” Ms. Alexander said. “It’s not enough time behind bars. They feel like it’s not justice and they’re not holding him accountable for killing 36 beautiful young people.”

Colleen Dolan, whose daughter, Chelsea Faith Dolan, 33, was killed in the fire, said it was not fair to allow Mr. Almena to serve his sentence at home when many are already stuck at home because of the coronavirus.

“We’ve all been sitting at home,” she said. “We’ve all been living in isolation for a year. And this is supposed to be justice? It just isn’t.”

The warehouse, which housed an artists’ collective known as the Ghost Ship, burned during a late-night party on Dec. 2, 2016.

Many of the residents had been living there in violation of zoning laws, and the fire highlighted the failure of Oakland’s leaders to enforce building and fire codes. The inferno also became an emblem of the rising cost of living in the Bay Area, which led many artists and young people to seek shelter in the run-down building.

Prosecutors said Mr. Almena, who was the lease holder, had moved into the warehouse with his family in violation of the lease, the Oakland municipal code and the California state fire code.

He then began to sublet space to people inside the warehouse, and encouraged residents to create their own living spaces from unconventional materials he had collected, including dry wood, fence boards, shingles, window frames, wooden sculptures, tapestries, pianos, organs and rugs, prosecutors said.

The flammable material became kindling for the blaze, which quickly consumed the building. Many of the victims were attending a party on the second floor and were unable to escape down the staircase.

Mr. Almena and Max Harris, whom prosecutors described as Mr. Almena’s right hand in managing the warehouse, were arrested in 2017 and charged with 36 counts each of involuntary manslaughter.

In 2018, prosecutors announced that they had reached a plea deal with Mr. Almena and Mr. Harris, in which the defendants had agreed to plead no contest to the charges.

Under the deal, Mr. Almena would have served nine years in prison, and Mr. Harris six years. But a month later, after an outcry from families who condemned the deal as too lenient, a judge rejected the agreement, setting up a trial.

During closing arguments, prosecutors called the warehouse a “death trap” and dismissed the defense’s claims that arsonists might have been responsible for the blaze. Witnesses had testified that there were no smoke alarms or sprinklers, and that Mr. Almena once laughed off the suggestion that the warehouse was dangerously susceptible to fire.

After three months of testimony, Mr. Harris was acquitted in September 2019, and the jury told Judge Thompson that they could not reach a verdict on the charges against Mr. Almena.

In July, the City of Oakland agreed to pay nearly $33 million to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims.

Ms. Dolan said that victims’ families would be able to make impact statements on March 8, when Mr. Almena is sentenced. She said it was impossible, however, for the families to convey their “disappointment with this feeble plea bargain.”

Ms. Dolan said her daughter, an electronic musician who performed under the stage name Cherushii, had agreed to perform at the Ghost Ship to support a label mate on the night of the fire.

“She and all the other friends in this artistic community, whether it was artists or whether it was fans, they all showed up to support one of their own, and they all died,” Ms. Dolan said. “There’s no way we can put into words the deep, deep sorrow we feel.”

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