California Ghost Ship warehouse founder gets nine years in prison in inferno that killed 36

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Derick Almena, the master tenant of a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse that caught fire during a music event, killing 36 people, was sentenced Monday to 12 years in prison, although he is unlikely to spend more time in jail.

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Already on house arrest after being released from jail last year because of coronavirus concerns, Almena was ordered to serve the rest of his term under electronic monitoring, followed by three years of probation.

“I know that no family member will find this in any way acceptable, and I accept that responsibility,” Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson said at the conclusion of an emotionally charged case that was first derailed by a hung jury, then the pandemic.

Many of the relatives had urged Thompson to reject a plea deal Almena had struck with prosecutors to avoid a second trial, calling it too lenient.

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Almena, 50, pleaded guilty in January to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a 12-year sentence.

FILE – In this June 5, 2017, file photo, released by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office shows Derick Almena at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif. Family members of the 36 people killed when a fire broke out at a San Francisco warehouse during a music event urged a judge Monday, March 8, 2021, to impose the toughest sentence for Derick Almena, the master tenant of the building, or reject a plea deal he struck with prosecutors to avoid a second trial. (Alameda County Sheriff’s Office via AP, File)

Because he received credit for time already spent behind bars while awaiting trial and for good behavior, he will spend the next one and a half years at home with an ankle monitor. He was also ordered to pay restitution which will be determined by the court at a later date.

“This lenient, slap-on-the-wrist sentence is vastly inappropriate for the crimes Derick Almena committed,” the family of fire victim Sarah Hoda said in a statement read to the court via teleconference. “Upholding the DA’s irresponsible plea recommendation would shortchange 36 victims and their families.”

Thompson and prosecutors said they took into consideration the challenges of trying the case again, given the challenges of selecting jurors during a pandemic, calling witnesses to court due to travel bans, and the publicity the first trial received.

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Prosecutors said Almena was criminally negligent when he illegally converted the industrial warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood into a residence and event space for artists, dubbed the “Ghost Ship,” filling the building with flammable materials and extension cords. It had no smoke detectors or sprinklers.

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    FILE – This undated file photo provided by the City of Oakland shows the burned warehouse after the deadly fire that broke out on Dec. 2, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. Family members of the 36 people killed when a fire broke out at a San Francisco warehouse during a music event urged a judge Monday, March 8, 2021, to impose the toughest sentence for Derick Almena, the master tenant of the building, or reject a plea deal he struck with prosecutors to avoid a second trial. (City of Oakland via AP, File)

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    This aerial photo shows the remains of a fire ravaged warehouse on December 05, 2016 that killed at least 36 people in Oakland, California. The death toll from a massive weekend fire at a warehouse near San Francisco shot up to 36, as authorities launched a criminal probe and pushed forth with recovery efforts. / AFP / Josh Edelson (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images)

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    FILE – This undated file photo provided by the City of Oakland shows the burned warehouse after the deadly fire that broke out on Dec. 2, 2016, in Oakland, Calif. Family members of the 36 people killed when a fire broke out at a San Francisco warehouse during a music event urged a judge Monday, March 8, 2021, to impose the toughest sentence for Derick Almena, the master tenant of the building, or reject a plea deal he struck with prosecutors to avoid a second trial. (City of Oakland via AP, File)

The Dec. 2, 2016, inferno broke out at the warehouse during an electronic music event, trapping victims on the illegally constructed second floor. Prosecutors said the victims got no warning and had little chance to escape down a narrow, ramshackle staircase.

Family and friends of the victims packed Thompson’s courtroom for months in 2019, becoming familiar faces to the judge, only to see a jury split on whether to convict Almena, who leased the building. At the same trial, the jury also found co-defendant Max Harris, who was the Ghost Ship’s “creative director” and rent collector, not guilty.

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