Families of the victims of the tragic December 2016 Ghost Ship fire are not all pleased with a plea agreement that was offered recently to the remaining criminal defendant in the case, Derick Almena. But as of Friday, Almena has pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a sentence of nine years.
We learned about the plea deal last week, around the same time that victims' families did, and as the East Bay Times reported, many parents of the deceased don't appear to have been on board with the agreement. As Colleen Dolan, whose daughter Chelsea Faith Dolan died in the fire, told the paper, "It’s beyond a disappointment. It’s beyond shock. I can’t get my emotions up high enough. I’m disheartened and depressed."
David Gregory, the father of victim Michela Gregory, expressed something similar saying, "I guess now we are supposed to just move on with our lives as if this is something we should just accept."
Almena, 50, was released on bail to house arrest last May due to ongoing COVID outbreaks at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, where he'd been held for the past three years. He has been living ever since with his wife and children in Lake County.
As the Chronicle reports, with credit for time served and good behavior, Almena may only need to serve two additional years under the plea deal, and he may be able to serve all of it on house arrest.
The plea deal avoids the uncertainty of a second trial, though it leaves the families of the 36 dead without a very satisfactory outcome. Almena was largely seen as the ringmaster of an artists' collective and warehouse where the interior spaces had been jammed with wood structures, musical instruments, makeshift staircases, and an poorly rigged electrical system that was likely the culprit in the deadly blaze — though an official inspection left things inconclusive. A second defendant, Max Harris, who helped Almena collect rent and who presided over the door at the event taking place the night of the fire, was acquitted in the pair's joint trial in September 2019. The jury was hung on Almena's guilt, and thus it ended in a mistrial for Almena, after which he remained in jail until his May 2020 release on reduced bail.
Multiple entities were seen as being negligent in allowing the warehouse to exist in its unsafe state, including PG&E and Oakland fire and building inspectors. The City of Oakland settled a civil case with 32 of the 36 victims' families last summer, agreeing to pay $23.5 million to families of the victims and $9.2 million to fire survivor Sam Maxwell, who will suffer from lifelong injuries from the blaze.
With colorful local defense attorney Tony Serra by his side, Almena appeared in person in court on Friday in Oakland to enter his plea. As KTVU reports, the final sentence may end up being 12 years, and sentencing will occur on March 8, at which point families will be able to give victims' statements.
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