Defendant in deadly warehouse fire to serve sentence at home

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OAKLAND, Calif. — 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.

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.

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

Because he received credit for time already spent behind bars while awaiting trial and for good behaviour , 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.

Prosecutors said Almena was criminally negligent when he illegally converted the industrial warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighbourhood 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.

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.

Daisy Nguyen, The Associated Press