The lead tenant of a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse, where 36 people died when a fire started at a dance party in 2016, pleaded guilty to death on Friday and avoided a second trial after the first ended in a hanged jury.
Derick Almena, 50, pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in exchange for a 12-year sentence. Almena, already out on bail, is unlikely to return to prison due to the nearly three years he has spent behind bars and credit for good behavior.
Alameda County Supreme Court Judge Trina Thompson read each count by name of the victim. When she asked Almena for his plea on each charge, he answered "guilty," but his quiet responses were sometimes inaudible via an online stream of the hearing that was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thompson planned a sentencing on March 8, when she will determine whether he will pay a refund, continue to be electronically monitored at his home in rural Northern California, and be subject to supervised probation. Families of the victims are allowed to make victim impact statements at that time.
Prosecutors say Almena was criminally negligent when he illegally converted the Oakland industrial warehouse into an artist living and event space called the "Ghost Ship," filling the two-story building with flammable materials and extension cords. It had no smoke detectors or sprinklers.
On December 2, 2016, a fire broke out in the warehouse during an electronic music and dance party that went so fast that victims were locked up on the illegally built second floor. Prosecutors said the victims received no warning and had little chance of escaping via a narrow, rickety staircase.
The case has been emotionally drastic for the victims' family and friends. Many of them had packed a courtroom for months in 2019, only to find that a jury was divided on whether or not to convict Almena, who leased the building. The jury also found co-defendant Max Harris, who was the & # 39; creative director & # 39; and the Ghost Ship's rent collector was not guilty at the same trial.
Zita Gregory, grandmother of victim Michela Gregory, said Almena's punishment can never be compared to the pain and suffering her family endured over the past four years. She said her husband, who was already sick with cancer, died a year after Michela.
& # 39; His condition got worse. He always said, "Why didn't God take me instead?" Gregory said in a tearful interview.
Another grandchild born December 2 no longer celebrates her birthday on that solemn date, Gregory said.
"The fire destroyed our family, we have never been the same," she said. "There will never be just any punishment for what all the victims have lost."
Almena had been imprisoned since 2017 until he was released in May over concerns about the coronavirus and after posting a $ 150,000 bail. He is under house arrest with an ankle monitor in the town of Upper Lake, where he lives with his wife and children.
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