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Man Sentenced In 2016 Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire In Oakland, Calif., That Killed 36

Derick Almena was sentenced for a fire that swept through a converted warehouse in Oakland, Calif., killing 36 people.
Derick Almena was sentenced for a fire that swept through a converted warehouse in Oakland, Calif., killing 36 people.

A man who operated a warehouse-turned-artist collective in Oakland, Calif., that caught fire in 2016, killing 36 people, has been sentenced to 12 years in prison. But with credit for time served and good behavior, Derick Almena is expected to serve just 18 months at home wearing an ankle monitor.

Almena was the primary leaseholder for the Bay Area space known as the Ghost Ship, which officials found had no smoke detectors or sprinklers and contained numerous extension cords and large quantities of flammable materials.

"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 sentencing. "I wish I could in the stroke of a pen take away your deep loss and your sadness."

On Dec. 2, 2016, during an electronic music event at the warehouse — which doubled as both a performance space and residence for artists — the building caught fire, trapping people on an illegally constructed second floor.

Almena pleaded no contest in 2018, agreeing to a 12-year sentence, with the last three years under supervised release. But a judge rejected the plea agreement, saying that Almena had failed to express "full responsibility and remorse" for the deadly blaze.

The following year, Almena and Max Harris, an assistant at the warehouse, were put on trial together. Harris was acquitted, but a judge declared a mistrial in the case of Almena after three jurors were replaced for undisclosed reasons.

An Oakland police officer guards the area in front of the Ghost Ship in the aftermath of the fire.
Ben Margot / AP
An Oakland police officer guards the area in front of the Ghost Ship in the aftermath of the fire.

In January this year, Almena pleaded guilty to all 36 counts in exchange for the sentence that was approved by the judge on Monday.

Prosecutors argued that Almena should be held criminally negligent for the deaths. They said that he was repeatedly warned about the dangers posed by the warehouse and that he ignored zoning laws that prohibited him from using the space for residential units.

Ahead of Monday's sentencing, Almena, 50, was already confined at home after being released from jail last year due to concerns over COVID-19. He was given credit for time served in jail as he awaited trial and for good behavior. As a result, Almena will serve only one and a half years of in-home confinement, wearing an ankle monitor.

He apologized to the victims and said he was "sick with shame."

"My shame cannot stand as any defense against what I am responsible for," Almena said in a statement read to the court by his attorney. "It is my fault, my terrible accumulation of error, that shaped and built a place so dangerous."

However, many relatives of the fire victims urged the judge to reject Almena's plea — aimed at avoiding a second trial.

"This lenient, slap-on-the-wrist sentence is vastly inappropriate for the crimes Derick Almena committed," the family of Sarah Hoda, one of the victims, said in a statement read to the court, according to The Associated Press.

The mother of victim Alex Ghassan called for the warehouse's owners and city agencies that enforce code and zoning regulations to be held accountable.

"I want my son's death not to go in vain," Emilie Grandchamps said.

In response to a civil lawsuit filed by the families of the victims in 2018, the owners of the warehouse, Chor Ng and her children, who do not face criminal charges, alleged that an electrician who performed work at the Ghost Ship had lied about being a licensed contractor. They accused him of "catastrophically overloading" the building's electrical system.

Last summer, the city of Oakland agreed to pay $32.7 million — $23.5 million will go to families of people who died, and $9.2 million will go to Sam Maxwell, who survived the fire with lifelong injuries.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
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