Almena sentenced to 12 years for Ghost Ship fire
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Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena heard emotional testimony before his sentencing Monday from some of the families of the 36 people killed in the Oakland warehouse fire more than four years ago. The Ghost Ship space in the Fruitvale neighborhood had been host to a number of LGBTQ-friendly events and three of those who died in the December 2, 2016 fire identified as transgender people. It was the deadliest fire in Oakland history.
As part of a plea-bargain worked out with Alameda County prosecutors, Almena pleaded guilty in January to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a 12-year sentence.
Saying it was the most difficult thing she had to do in her life, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson on March 8 sentenced Almena to 12 years, but with credit for time served and good behavior, he will not have to return to jail. Almena will be monitored with an electronic ankle bracelet during a period of home confinement and later be under supervised probation.
In approving the plea-bargain, Thompson noted the challenges of a new trial during the pandemic in addition to one of the prosecution witnesses dying since the first trial and another whose testimony had to be stricken after he didn't return to court.
Almena and his attorneys were in court but family members spoke through a video hookup.
Nancye Fritz, the mother of a transgender woman, Feral Pines, 29, choked back tears as she described bringing her daughter's remains back to her home in Connecticut: "My husband was allowed to bring her home, but there were days of waiting for the body to be released from autopsy. We didn't want her flying back in the cold hold of a plane. So we chose to cremate her in Oakland. We never got to say goodbye. I hope no one I know ever has to go to the post office to pick up a cardboard box of your child's remains and drive home with them on their lap."
Colleen Dolan, who lost her daughter, Chelsea, in the fire, warned other family members in advance that they might want to mute her for about 40 seconds while she described in vivid detail her nightmares of what it must have been like for her daughter and the other victims to die in the fire.
"And now I give back this nightmare curse you placed on us all. I curse you with all the power the universe gives to a bereaved mother," she said as her voice broke with emotion. "I do not forgive you and I never will. May you burn in the hellish nightmares you created."
"We ask you to reject this plea deal. We beg of you to reject this plea deal," said David Gregory, the father of victim Michaela Gregory. In introducing Gregory, Thompson said she believed that he had been in court every day of the case. Gregory told the judge he just missed one hearing.
Michaela Gregory's mother and aunt also asked the judge to reject the deal and they said that it appeared that it looked like Almena was nodding off and not paying attention to the families. Later in the hearing Thompson said she also observed Almena's conduct, saying that she noticed that he had apparently spilled a cup of coffee in the morning and that his motions appeared "herky-jerky" in the afternoon. Thompson asked if he was on prescription drugs or narcotics. Almena's lawyer Tony Serra responded that Almena was simply overwhelmed.
Acquittal for Harris in 2019
In September 2019, an Alameda County jury acquitted Almena's co-defendant, Max Harris, but it deadlocked on Almena. Almena's plea deal ended the possibility for a second trial.
In an exclusive interview with the Bay Area Reporter a month after the 2019 verdict, Almena said he was optimistic of a favorable result for him if his case was retried.
"As far as I am concerned, I was framed," Almena said at the time. "There was a lot more people, a lot more entities, that should have been involved in this case but they thought it was going to be a slam dunk with me and Max [Harris.]"
When asked how the new trial would be different, Almena responded, "I think the investigation was bungled, that is obvious to everybody. The owners should be held responsible. The owners should be made to testify, at least. And they won't. And no one will.
"But now with this new trial, a lot of people are coming forward who are willing to talk now because the criminal charges have all been basically dissipated," he added. "So there is a whole new energy of truthfulness that is willing to come and speak up."
Almena was referring to the statute of limitations that would have ended on December 2, 2019, which would make witnesses less fearful of being prosecuted.
Almena did not speak during the sentencing hearing Monday but his lawyer read a statement from him in which he stated many times how sorry and remorseful he was and that he accepted full responsibility for what happened.
Thompson scheduled what likely will be the final hearing in the case on April 30, when restitution will be discussed after the judge is in receipt of paperwork that she needed to proceed with that issue.
The City of Oakland last year agreed to a $32.7 million settlement for the families of 32 victims attorney Mary Alexander is representing. Alexander told the B.A.R. on Monday that her case against PG&E has also been settled but for a confidential sum. She added that a final settlement against the Ng family that owned the warehouse is pending.
"We have reached an agreement with the Ngs and they will be going into voluntary bankruptcy to sell their properties with the proceeds going to the plaintiffs (the families). The bankruptcy filing should be in the next couple of months," the attorney responded in an email to the B.A.R. on Monday.
Alexander wrote that the settlement with the Ng's involved around five properties and with insurance, the amount totaled about $12 million.
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