Retrial for man in California warehouse fire that killed 36
Oakland, Calif. – The founder of an artists’ work-live collective in the San Francisco Bay Area where a fast-moving fire trapped and killed 36 partygoers three years ago will be tried again on manslaughter charges, prosecutors said Friday.
Alameda County prosecutors said they decided on a retrial after a jury last month deadlocked on whether to find Derick Almena, 49, guilty or innocent. Jurors split 10-2 in favor of finding him guilty.
The same jury acquitted his co-defendant Max Harris, 29, of manslaughter charges in September after an emotionally taxing three-month trial that drained family and friends of defendants and victims.
Sobs and gasps erupted from stunned family and friends of the victims when the judge declared a mistrial, and several victims’ relatives said at the time they felt cheated by the verdicts.
Colleen Dolan, whose daughter Chelsea died in the fire, attended the first trial and said she will attend the retrial.
“I miss her every day, I miss her every night. I think about the fire every day and every night and I do want the man who was responsible to be held accountable,” she said Friday.
Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra, struck a defiant tone after the retrial was announced.
“We want to go to trial, we don’t want to negotiate,” he said. “We don’t want to involve ourselves in any kind of plea agreement. We’re confident.”
Judge Trina Thompson set a new trial date in March. She also denied a motion by defense attorneys to reduce bail for Almena from $750,000 to $50,000. He has been jailed for more than two years.
Almena’s wife, Micah Allison, said she was sad that the judge refused to lower his bail because Almena wants to be at home with his children and that people around the world are praying for him to get out.
She said the remorse felt by the family is “immeasurable” and that they have all been changed.
“There is nothing I can do that can take away what happened. Nothing,” she said. “There is absolutely no way that anyone has not grown or changed from this situation.
The Dec. 2, 2016, fire broke out during an electronic music party at the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, killing 36 mostly young partygoers.
Prosecutors allege Almena, who was the master tenant on the lease, was criminally negligent when he illegally converted the industrial building into a residence for artists and held unpermitted events inside.
The building was packed with furniture, extension cords and other flammable material but had only two exits and no smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinklers, prosecutors say.
The blaze killed many young people trapped on the illegally constructed second floor. Prosecutors said the victims received no warning and had little chance to escape down a narrow, ramshackle staircase.
Almena’s attorneys argued city workers were to blame for not raising concerns about fire hazards in the warehouse and said the fire was arson. Investigators have never found its cause, meaning arson cannot be ruled out.
The case against Almena has had many starts and stops, including a re-start of jury deliberations in August after the judge dismissed three jurors for misconduct.
Thompson on Friday held two of those jurors in contempt of court, an admonishment from the court for failing to obey or respect the court and punishable by a fine. One juror was issued a $500 fine.
Thompson never publicly detailed the misconduct, but Almena’s attorney said one of the jurors sought input on the case from a fire expert and shared what she learned with two other jurors.
Almena and Harris had pleaded no contest to manslaughter and were set to be sentenced last year to nine and six years in prison, respectively. But a judge threw out their pleas after many of the victims’ families objected.
The judge at the time said Almena was not sufficiently remorseful.
Almena faces up to 39 years in prison if convicted on all charges.