Ghost Ship defendants cop pleas, face prison

Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris pleaded no contest Tuesday to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the December 2016 fire that killed 36 people.

Harris’ lawyer Curtis Briggs said Almena, 48, and Harris, 28, could have spent the rest of their lives in prison if they had gone to trial and been found guilty of all the charges stemming from the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. in Oakland’s Fruitvale district on Dec. 2, 2016.

Almena and Harris lived in the two-story warehouse with about 20 other people, including Almena’s wife and their young children.

At a lengthy preliminary hearing late last year, 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.

In filing the charges against Almena and Harris in June 2017, after a long investigation, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said the warehouse had no city permits for residency or for the concerts and shows that were held there and alleged they:

“… knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape, filled it with human beings, and are now facing the consequences of their deadly actions.”

The victims, who were between the ages of 17 and 61, died of smoke inhalation.

Before taking their pleas Tuesday, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson made sure Almena and Harris understood the legal rights they were waiving and that he would find them guilty once they pleaded no contest.

In a solemn process that took more than half an hour, Jacobson then read all 36 counts aloud, including the names of all the victims, and Almena and Harris entered their pleas and were found guilty.

Some of the victims’ family members attended the hearing and cried when the names were read.

Jacobson said the plea agreement calls for Almena to serve a 12-year term that includes 9 years in jail and 3 years on supervised release.

He said the deal calls for Harris to serve a 10-year term that includes 6 years in custody and 4 years on supervised release.

Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra said he expects that Almena will be released from custody in about three and a half years because of the credits he’s already accumulated and Briggs said he expects that Harris will be released in about 23 months.

Jacobson said he expects the sentencing hearing to be lengthy because family members of the victims and Almena and Harris will speak so he set aside two full days on Aug. 8 and 9.

After Tuesday’s hearing, prosecutor Autrey James said:

“After 18 months, Mr. Almena and Mr. Harris have finally taken responsibility for their actions, which resulted in the deaths of 36 people.”

James said the two men “acted negligently in running the building in the months and years” leading up to the fire.

District Attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick said the victims’ family who came to court today don’t want to make any comment at this time but instead will speak at the sentencing hearing.

Serra said if the case had gone to trial “we would have had viable defenses” but said Almena decided to plead no contest to the charges “as a moral imperative to eliminate the pain and suffering of everyone.”

At a hearing several weeks ago Jacobson estimated that the trial, which was scheduled to begin on July 16, might last into next January because it might take several months to select a jury and litigate pretrial motions and it could take the prosecution two months to present its case.

Prosecutors said they might call up to 50 witnesses and Serra and Briggs said they might each ask at least 10 witnesses to testify.

Briggs said the plea agreement is “bittersweet” and he hopes the victims’ family members can now move forward with their lives.

Briggs said, “It was difficult to reach an agreement because all sides were committed to their positions” but he credited Jacobson with “expertly mediating to a level I’ve never seen before.”

Briggs said, “Max Harris is not a criminal and we have a hard time with the concept of him serving any jail time but the prosecution was committed to the victims’ family members,” who he said wanted Almena and Harris to serve time.