The main tenant of a warehouse that had been converted into a dilapidated artist collective in Oakland, California, pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter on Friday, four years after a fire ripped through the building, killing 36 people, court records show.
The lead tenant, Derick Almena, filed pleas in Alameda County Superior Court, avoiding a second trial after his first trial ended without a verdict in 2019.
Mr Almena was one of two people who had been criminally charged in connection with the fire – the other was found not guilty in 2019 – and his pleas came after several twists and turns in the case infuriated the families of the victims.
The Alameda County District Attorney & # 39; s Office said Friday it was unable to comment due to a gag warrant issued by Judge Trina Thompson. Mr. Almena's attorney, Tony Serra, also declined to comment, citing the gag order, his office said.
But Mary Alexander, a lawyer representing the families of 13 victims, said the families were outraged by the settlement agreement, which she said would allow Mr Almena to avoid extra time behind bars when sentenced on March 8. imprisonment for about three years after he was out arrested and charged in connection with the fire; he was released on bail last year.
Ms. Alexander said prosecutors had told families that although Mr. Almena would face a nine-year sentence, he would be credited for deported time and good behavior, which would allow him to serve the rest of his sentence – about a year and several months – at home with an anklet. After that, he would be expected to complete three years of probation, Ms. Alexander said.
"This is a truly devastating blow to the families," said Ms Alexander. "It's not enough time behind bars. They don't feel like it is justice and they don't hold him responsible for killing 36 beautiful young people."
Colleen Dolan, whose daughter, Chelsea Faith Dolan, 33, was killed in the fire, said it was not fair to have Mr. Almena serve his sentence at home, while many are already in prison at home for the coronavirus.
"We've all been at home," she said. "We all live in isolation for a year. And this should be justice? It just isn't."
The warehouse, which housed an artist collective known as the Ghost Ship, burned during a nightly party on December 2, 2016.
Many of the residents lived there in violation of zoning laws, and the fire underscored the failure of Oakland leaders to enforce building and fire codes. The inferno also became an emblem of the rising cost of living in the Bay Area, prompting many artists and young people to seek shelter in the dilapidated building.
Prosecutors said Mr. Almena, who was the leaseholder, moved into the warehouse with his family violation of the lease, the Oakland Municipal Code, and the California State Fire Code.
He then began to sublet space to people in the warehouse, encouraging residents to create their own living spaces from unconventional materials he had collected, including dry wood, fence planks, shingles, window frames, wooden sculptures, tapestries, pianos. , organs and carpets. prosecutors said.
The combustible material became kindling for the fire, which quickly consumed the building. Many of the victims attended a party on the second floor and were unable to escape up the stairs.
Mr. Almena and Max Harris, described by prosecutors as Mr. Almena's right-hand man in managing the warehouse, were arrested in 2017 and charged with 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter each.
In 2018, prosecutors announced that they had a plea with Mr Almena and Mr Harris, in which the defendants agreed not to contest the charges.
Under the deal, Mr. Almena would have spent nine years in prison and Mr. Harris six years. But a month later, after a protest from families condemning the deal too lenient, a judge dismissed the agreement and started a lawsuit.
During the closing arguments, prosecutors called the warehouse a & # 39; death trap & # 39; and rejected the defense's claims that arsonists may have been responsible for the blaze. Witnesses had stated that there were no smoke detectors or sprinklers and that Mr. Almena once laughed at the suggestion that the warehouse was dangerously prone to fire.
After three months of testimony, Mr. Harris was acquitted in September 2019 and the jury told Judge Thompson that they could not pass judgment on the charges against Mr. Almena.
In July, the city of Oakland agreed to pay nearly $ 33 million to settle lawsuits on behalf of the victims.
Ms. Dolan said the victims' families could issue statements of impact on March 8, if Mr. Almena is convicted. However, she said it was impossible for the families to express their "disappointment at this feeble plea".
Ms. Dolan said her daughter, an electronic musician performing under the stage name Cherushii, had agreed to perform at the Ghost Ship to support a labelmate on the night of the fire.
"She and all the other friends in this artistic community, be it artists or fans, they all showed up to support one of their own, and they all died," said Ms. Dolan. "It's impossible to put into words the deep, deep sorrow we feel."