Derick Almena, the master tenant who pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter related to a 2016 fire at The Ghost Ship, has been sentenced to 12 years in prison. As The Associated Press reports, the 50-year-old is currently under house arrest and is expected to serve the rest of his time under electronic monitoring at home.
Almena had illegally converted a warehouse in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland, California into an arts community and venue called The Ghost Ship. On December 2nd, 2016, the warehouse caught fire during a late-night dance party and 36 people died. At the time of the accident, the space was under investigation for electrical wiring issues and unlicensed interior building structures. It also lacked smoke detectors and sprinklers. The prosecutor accused him of “knowingly creating a fire trap.”
Almena was arrested in 2017. His first trial resulted in a hung jury and the acquittal of co-defendant Max Harris. The process was further derailed by the novel coronavirus, and last year, due to concerns around COVID-19, he was released from jail and placed on house arrest. This past January, he struck a plea deal with prosecutors in exchange for a 12-year-sentence that included time already served. Families of the victims had urged Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson to reject the deal.
“I know that no family member will find this in any way acceptable, and I accept that responsibility,” Judge Thompson said at the conclusion of the trial, after ordering Almena to serve the remainder of his term with an ankle monitor at home. Because of time served and good behavior, his sentence could conclude in as a little as 18 months, after which he faces three years of probation.
Judge Thompson acknowledged the grieving families, adding, “I wish I could in the stroke of a pen take away your deep loss and your sadness.”
Some of the victims’ relatives expressed disbelief and anger at the Judge’s decision. “This lenient, slap-on-the-wrist sentence is vastly inappropriate for the crimes Derick Almena committed,” fire victim Sarah Hoda’s family said in a statement. “Upholding the DA’s irresponsible plea recommendation would shortchange 36 victims and their families.”
Emilie Grandchamps, the mother of victim Alex Ghassan, said “I often ask, why was my son given a death sentence for being in the wrong place and at the wrong time and those responsible for his and 35 others’ death are given a second chance at life? I want my son’s death not to go in vain.”
Almena told the victims and their families that he was “sick with shame.” He apologized in a statement read to the court by his attorney, Tony Serra, saying, “My shame cannot stand as any defense against what I am responsible for. It is my fault, my terrible accumulation of error, that shaped and built a place so dangerous.”
In 2020, the Oakland City Council settled civil lawsuits filed on behalf of the victims for over $33 million. Of that, $23.5 was earmarked for the families of victims, and $9.2 million goes to a fire survivor suffering from “severe, lifelong injuries.” Almena himself has been ordered to pay $181,000 in restitution for counseling and funeral services. His restitution hearing is set for April 30th.