In a stunning decision Friday, the judge in the Ghost Ship criminal trial tossed the plea deal of defendant Derick Almena, saying the 48-year-old man did not show true remorse for the deadly 2016 fire that trapped 36 people in a warehouse.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer’s ruling also dissolves the plea agreement the district attorney’s office made with co-defendant Max Harris, 28, because the deals were done as a package. The move paves the way for a jury trial for Almena and Harris, unless a new deal can be reached.
“I am expressly rejecting the plea bargain as to Mr. Almena,” Cramer said after listening to statements from families of the victims and defendants over a two-day hearing that was expected to end with the sentencing of Almena and Harris. “I do not know that it will do any of these victims any good.”
The judge’s declaration startled the courtroom: Some family members of the victims cheered and shouted, “Yes!” Others gasped and cried. Attorneys appeared surprised.
The move came on the second day of the hearing in an Oakland courtroom, where families of the victims killed in the Dec. 2, 2016, blaze called the plea deals a “slap on the wrist” and implored Cramer to reconsider.
Under the plea agreement, Almena and Harris were to be sentenced to nine and six years, respectively, in county jail. But with credit for time served, Almena could have been released in 3½ years and Harris in less than two years. The agreement was made under a different judge, Morris Jacobson, and finalized last month.
If convicted at trial, the pair could face up to 39 years in state prison.
“Rejecting one automatically rejects the other,” said Deputy District Attorney David Lim. “One can’t take the deal if the other doesn’t take the deal.”
A surprised Tony Serra, defense attorney for Almena, said outside court that his client has been “villainized” and will not get a fair trial.
In reaching his decision, which Cramer said he has wrestled with for days, the judge reviewed a lengthy essay that Almena had submitted recently to a probation officer. In it, Almena blamed others for the fire and called himself a victim. That thinking, Cramer said, indicates that Almena has not yet fully acknowledged his responsibility for the tragedy.
On Thursday, families of the victims tearfully recounted the devastation they experienced in losing their loved ones in the building that officials described as a firetrap.
On Friday, before Cramer handed down his ruling, Almena addressed the families, telling them he should have died that night.
Your children “were the best our society had to offer,” Almena said. “I wish I wasn’t born. I am in hell, OK?”
Almena, who leased the warehouse from the property owner and allowed it to be used for an electronic music party the night of the fire, said he wished he could have been there that night to sacrifice himself and try to save others.
“If I could give each of you my life — and my children’s lives — I would,” the father of three said.
But when he offered to have his body tattooed with flames and the faces of the victims, some families in the gallery recoiled.
Harris told the families he has been praying for them, day and night. Harris spoke of his deepened religious faith following the catastrophe. He apologized for his “actions … inactions … lack of foresight,” and vowed to “bring light into this world.”
Harris’ friends and relatives emphasized his care for living creatures, marked by his veganism and attempts to guide people out of the building when the blaze began to spread.
Almena also had his wife, Micah Allison, and 14-year-old daughter speak on his behalf.
Their testimony came the day after family and friends of the victims described their grief and anger and the last moments they saw their children alive. Some of them glared or wept as Harris and Almena spoke to them. When Serra called the warehouse “something that everyone described as beautiful and awesome” and called the defendants “also victims of that fire,” a few parents shook their heads.
Almena, who said repeatedly “I am guilty,” told the courtroom that Harris was only at the warehouse because Almena had asked him to be.
“They were guests in my home, and I failed,” Almena said. “I will forever be chained to that fire by my reckless actions.”
Almena’s daughter, Bolonik Ionsun, who lived in the Ghost Ship artist collective for several years, said “the intentions of that warehouse were always pure.” She said she wanted to defend her father “but that is not my place.”
She and her mother told the victims’ families that they, too, were sorry.
“I miss my papa every single day,” Ionsun said. “I need him.”
Many victims’ families said they wanted the case to go to trial in the hope it would bring to light new facts. They said the plea-agreed sentences were negligible compared with the deaths of 36 people.
Cramer said he disagreed on both points. He cautioned families that a trial would not alleviate their suffering and may not even result in convictions. And he said six and nine years in county jail were serious sentences.
“Nothing will change the fact of those you loved and lost,” he said. “Trial is a big unknown.”
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