Ghost Ship warehouse fire defendants granted plea deal

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Aured Mcnamara/File

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Alameda County Judge Morris Jacobson accepted pleas by defendants Derick Almena, 48, and Max Harris, 28, who were found guilty of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter because of their involvement with the 2016 “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire.

At the sentencing set for Aug. 8, Almena, who rented the warehouse, will be sentenced with 12 years — nine in custody and three on mandatory supervision. Harris, Ghost Ship’s creative director, will be sentenced with 10 years — six in custody and four supervised — according to Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Teresa Drenick.

“(Harris) saved over a dozen people’s lives that night, but … he will accept a degree of responsibility today,” said defense attorney Tyler Smith.

Because Harris’ sentence could have merited up to 144 years behind bars, Smith said the plea was a coup for the defense. Certain of his client’s innocence, however, Smith regrets the plea’s legal implication: an admission of guilt.

Ghost Ship, a warehouse in Oakland owned and operated by an art collective, caught fire in December 2016 during an electronic music party. The fire claimed 36 lives, including those of UC Berkeley students Jennifer Morris and Vanessa Plotkin, campus alumni Griffin Madden and David Cline, and KALX DJ Chelsea Dolan, according to the Cal Alumni Association website.

According to the district attorney’s statement of probable cause, Almena and others lived in the warehouse, fitted it with unsafe structures and stored flammable materials in the warehouse, which was zoned for industrial use, not residential use. The building also was not fitted with sprinklers or fire alarms, which violates California’s fire safety code.

According to Smith, the defendants and their defense teams saw Jacobson four separate times, the most recent of which being Tuesday. Smith said Harris’ six-year prison term will be shortened by his clean record.

“Since he doesn’t have any (past sentences) and no strikes, he can get half time,” Smith said. “Every day that he spends in jail (including during the proceedings) counts towards the ultimate sentence.”

While the district attorney’s statement alleged that Harris and Almena acted in a way that disregarded human life, Harris’ other defense attorney, Curtis Briggs, defended him as someone who “always tried to do the right thing.” According to Briggs, Harris helped direct people to the exits during the fire.

Briggs instead blamed the tragedy on the city of Oakland, which he said failed to “place preservation of life over collection of fees.”

Briggs said Oakland can help prevent similar tragedies in the future by devoting resources to ensure the safety of low-income art spaces.

“(Oakland) allowed to exist over 300 warehouses just like the Ghost Ship,” Briggs said. “They neglected hundreds to thousands of older warehouses because they made fire inspections a priority for new buildings due to the fees collected by the city on new buildings.”

Contact Alexandra Reinecke at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @arhine9.