Sentencing for Deadly Oakland Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire Defendants to Begin

What's expected to be an emotional two-day sentencing hearing for Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris for the fire at the warehouse in December 2016 that killed 36 people will begin on Thursday morning.

Almena, 48, and Harris, 28, avoided a lengthy trial by pleading no contest on July 3 to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for their roles in the fire during a music party at the two-story warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. in Oakland's Fruitvale district on Dec. 2, 2016.

Almena and Harris lived at the warehouse with about 20 other people, including Almena's wife and their young children.

At a lengthy preliminary hearing late last year, prosecutors said guests and residents were endangered by the warehouse's makeshift electrical system and floor-to-ceiling load of pianos, wooden sculptures, pallets, motor campers, rugs, benches, tree limbs and tapestries.

In filing the charges against Almena and Harris last year after a long investigation, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said the warehouse had no city permits for residency or for the concerts and shows that were held there.

O'Malley also alleged that Almena and Harris "knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape, filled it with human beings, and are now facing the consequences of their deadly actions."

The victims, who were between 17 and 61 years old, died of smoke inhalation.

In a solemn process at the plea hearing on July 3 that took more than half an hour, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson read all 36 counts aloud, including the names of all the victims, and Almena and Harris entered their pleas and were found guilty.

Some of the victims' family members attended the hearing and cried when the names were read.

According to Harris' lawyer Curtis Briggs, Almena and Harris could have spent the rest of their lives in prison if they'd gone to trial and been found guilty of all the charges stemming from the fire.

Jacobson said the plea agreement calls for Almena to serve a 12-year term that includes 9 years in jail and 3 years on supervised release.

He said the deal calls for Harris to serve a 10-year term that includes 6 years in custody and 4 years on supervised release.

Almena's lawyer Tony Serra said he expects that Almena will be released from custody in about three and a half years because of the credits he's already accumulated and Briggs said he expects that Harris will be released in about 23 months.

Family members and friends of the victims are expected to speak at the unusually lengthy sentencing hearing, which is expected to continue on Friday, and Almena and Harris are expected to speak as well.

Since Almena and Harris pleaded no contest, Serra said he expects the sentencing hearing to be "a very agonizing session" at which the victims' family members will speak emotionally about the anguish they've experienced.

Serra said, "We want to counteract what they will say."

Brian Getz, another attorney for Almena, said Almena "is very sorry" about what happened and "no punishment could possibly be adequate."

Tyler Smith, one of Harris' lawyers, said Harris "will feel remorse and pain for the rest of his life."

Judge Jacobson, who helped facilitate the plea agreement, is on vacation so Judge James Cramer will handle the sentencing hearing.

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