Monday marked the end of a long road in the case of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire where 36 people died on the night of Dec. 2, 2016. Defendant Derick Almena, coined the Ghost Ship master tenant, arrived at the Alameda County Superior Court with a plea agreement under his belt, and, to the disappointment of many victims’ families, he left with the same.
It was announced just before 4:30 p.m. that Judge Trina Thompson accepted the deal agreed to in January when Almena pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Thompson soon after handed down a 12-year sentence with time served. Almena, who was previously allowed to post bail due to concern over Covid-19 spread in jails and his deteriorated health, will be permitted to serve his time at home under electronic monitoring and is only expected to actually serve about 18 months.
The sentence was considered a “slap on the wrist” by many, which Thompson acknowledged at the hearing, saying:
“I know that no family member will find this in any way acceptable and I accept that responsibility. … I wish I could in the stroke of a pen take away your deep loss and your sadness.”
Monday’s hearing was the finale in a series of courtroom proceedings over the span of about three years that saw rejections of previous plea deals, the acquittal of then co-defendant Max Harris and a mistrial. With each iteration, family members made emotional impact statements and suffered through grueling testimony of what led to and happened on that fateful night.
On Monday, Colleen Dolan, who lost her daughter Chelsea Faith Dolan, said:
“May you, Derick Almena, take on the visions that I see each day and feel the pain of my nightmares.”
The warehouse at 1305 31st Avenue was used as makeshift artist housing and occasionally hosted live music performances. It was during one of those shows on a First Friday when the fire broke out and people who had paid to get in struggled to get out in near darkness as smoke filled the maze-like structure of DIY stairs and flammable surroundings. The space once beloved for its eclectic beauty — filled with several pianos, tapestries, art pieces and ‘halls’ constructed of random materials — became a “death trap” with few exits. Thirty-six people died inside the Ghost Ship warehouse on that Friday night, just one-tenth of a mile from the nearest Oakland Fire Department station.
The Oakland Fire Department, which had received multiple reports about the property, and the Ng family, who owned the building, have gone relatively unscathed by prosecutors, a fact that has drawn wide criticism by victims’ advocates and the public alike. The city of Oakland settled a lawsuit just this past November with an agreement to pay nearly $33 million to victims’ families.
On par with the rest of the Ghost Ship court proceedings, Monday’s sentencing hearing was riddled with drama and uncertainty. At one point in the afternoon, Thompson halted the hearing due to concerns over Almena’s wellbeing. He was visibly rocking and “nodding out” and seemed to some as if he was medicated while family members made statements.
The proceeding later resumed and defense attorney Tony Serra claimed Almena’s behavior was due to overwhelming emotion and shame, not drug use.
For much of the day, it was unknown if Thompson would accept the plea deal, but she ultimately did and Almena escaped years in prison.
This story was originally published with Broke-Ass Stuart. Nik Wojcik has covered the Ghost Ship trials for both Broke-Ass Stuart and SFBay.