California Judge Rejects Plea Deal in Oakland Warehouse Fire

Two men accused of involuntary manslaughter in a California warehouse fire that killed 36 people were due back in court on Aug.17 to set a possible trial date after a judge rejected their plea deal.

Families whose loved ones died in the Dec. 2, 2016 blaze in Oakland demanded a criminal trial for Derick Almena and Max Harris so they could learn more about how the tragedy unfolded, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office said. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

The families’ emotional appeal prompted District Attorney Nancy O’Malley to end plea discussions with defense attorneys for Almena, who ran the warehouse as an art collective and party space, and Harris, the creative director.

Instead, she asked Judge James Cramer to set a trial date for the men, who are each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

A trial date was expected to be set at a hearing in Alameda County Superior Court on Friday, DA spokesman Ray Casarez said.

“The grief of the families, the pain and shock of the community by the senseless and tragic deaths of 36 individuals caused by a fire that roared through the warehouse is as strong and deep today as it was in December 2016,” O’Malley said in a letter to the judge.

A firefighter embraces a child during a vigil for the victims of the fatal warehouse fire.
A firefighter embraces a child during a vigil for the victims of the fatal warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif., Dec. 5, 2016. (Reuters/Stephen Lam)

“These lives were lost at the hands of the two defendants,” she wrote.

After hearing two days of sometimes emotional testimony last week, Judge Cramer rejected the plea deal and scheduled the hearing for Aug. 17, when a trial date may be set.

Under the plea deal, Almena, 48, and Harris, 28, would have been respectively sentenced to nine and six years in prison.

If convicted at trial, they each face up to 39 years in prison.

The fire destroyed the 10,000-square-foot (900-square-meter) Ghost Ship warehouse during an illegal dance party on Dec. 2, 2016. It was the deadliest fire in the United States since 100 people were killed in 2003 in a fire at a Rhode Island nightclub.

The two men were accused of criminal negligence, with prosecutors pointing to the building’s lack of sprinklers and smoke detectors. A staircase between its two floors was built partially out of flammable wooden pallets. On the night of the party, the men blocked one of the two exterior doors.

Defense attorneys for Almena and Harris were not immediately available for comment.

By Barbara Goldberg