Derick Almena, the master tenant of the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland where dozens were killed in a fire in 2016, pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter on Friday as part of a plea deal that victims' families said was shocking and disappointing.
Alameda County prosecutors told the families of victims that Almena, 50, will receive a nine-year prison sentence as part of the deal, the East Bay Times previously reported, and he likely will serve little to no additional time behind bars because of time he already served and credit for good behavior. His sentencing is expected in the next few weeks, according to local news outlet KTVU.
Thirty-six people died in a fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in 2016 during an electronic music dance party on the second floor. Alameda County prosecutors said the blaze moved so fast that many people upstairs had little warning or chance to flee down the ramshackle wooden staircase that led to the first floor.
The Ghost Ship warehouse had been illegally converted into an artist residence and event space, part of a lively art scene in Oakland that was being squeezed by gentrification. The building did not have permits for a residence or public shows.
Some of the partygoers recalled seeing the warehouse filled with objects made of wood, and prosecutors said that there were flammable materials, including extension cords, all over the two-story building.
The tragedy ripped through Oakland's artist community, and many said at the time that it illustrated the risk forced on them to survive in the Bay Area as rent prices increased and officials began "cracking down on marginalized communities."
In the years since the fire, families of the 36 people who died have held out hope for justice. Almena's plea deal, which the families only heard about being a possibility last week, angered some, the East Bay Times reported.
David Gregory, the father of victim Michela Gregory, told the newspaper that he was disappointed about a possible plea deal.
“I guess now we are supposed to just move on with our lives as if this is something we should just accept," he added.
“It’s beyond a disappointment. It’s beyond shock. I can’t get my emotions up high enough. I’m disheartened and depressed,” Colleen Dolan, whose daughter Chelsea Faith Dolan also died in the fire, told the newspaper.
Almena had been serving time behind bars since 2017 but was released in May 2020 after posting a $150,000 bail bond due to fears over COVID-19. He has been on house arrest in his home in Upper Lake, California, where he lives with his wife and kids, the Associated Press reported.
The first trial ended with a hung jury verdict for Almena in September 2019 after more than two weeks of jury deliberations.
Max Harris, 29, who helped Almena collect rent at the Ghost Ship, was acquitted of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter at that same trial.