Almena pleads guilty in Ghost Ship fire, avoiding 2nd trial

  • by Ed Walsh, BAR Contributor
  • Friday January 22, 2021
Share this Post:
Ghost Ship master tenant Derek Almena. Photo: Courtesy Lake County Sheriff's Department
Ghost Ship master tenant Derek Almena. Photo: Courtesy Lake County Sheriff's Department

Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena pleaded guilty Friday (January 22) to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36 people, including three who identified as transgender, on December 2, 2016.

The fire was the deadliest in Oakland history.

As part of the plea bargain worked out with Alameda County prosecutors, Almena is expected to receive a 12-year sentence. With credit for time served that will unlikely result in him being sent back to jail. He will likely continue to be monitored with an electronic ankle bracelet for 18 months in his Lake County home and be subject to three years of supervised probation.

He is scheduled to be sentenced March 8, at which time people who knew the victims will be allowed to give victim impact statements.

In September 2019, an Alameda County jury acquitted Almena's co-defendant, Max Harris, but it deadlocked on Almena.

Almena's plea deal means there will not be a second trial.

In an exclusive interview with the Bay Area Reporter a month after the 2019 verdict, Almena said he was optimistic of a favorable result for him if his case was retried.

"As far as I am concerned, I was framed," Almena said at the time. "There was a lot more people, a lot more entities, that should have been involved in this case but they thought it was going to be a slam dunk with me and Max [Harris.]"

When asked how the new trial would be different, Almena responded, "I think the investigation was bungled, that is obvious to everybody. The owners should be held responsible. The owners should be made to testify, at least. And they won't. And no one will.

"But now with this new trial, a lot of people are coming forward who are willing to talk now because the criminal charges have all been basically dissipated," he added. "So there is a whole new energy of truthfulness that is willing to come and speak up."

Almena was referring to the statute of limitations that would have ended on December 2, 2019, which would make witnesses less fearful of being prosecuted.

Almena left court in Oakland on Friday with his attorneys and did not talk to reporters.

Mary Alexander, an attorney representing 13 families in civil lawsuits in connection with the fire, told the B.A.R. in an email on Friday: "This is a crushing blow for the families. The plea is too few years behind bars. It is not justice and does not hold him accountable for killing 36 young people who will never come home.

"Almena gets to be with his family at home with an ankle bracelet, while their children will never come home," she added.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.