Almena blasts judge's decision
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Ghost Ship founder Derick Almena is blasting the judge who threw out the plea deal last week and said it is no longer possible for him to get a fair trial.
In a jailhouse interview with the Bay Area Reporter Monday, August 13, Almena was also critical of Oakland city officials for not accepting responsibility for their share of the blame for the 2016 fire that killed 36 people.
In overturning the plea deal, Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer ordered Almena and his co-defendant, Max Harris, to stand trial, saying that Almena did not show true remorse.
Almena and Harris had pleaded no contest to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the case. Almena and Harris received a nine and six year sentencing under the plea bargain, respectively. With credit for time served and good behavior, Almena could have been released in three and a half years, and Harris in under two years.
The deal also allowed the men to serve their time at Santa Rita Jail, where they are currently, rather than state prison.
Almena said Cramer took quotes from his prepared statement out of context, implying that he wasn't remorseful. He added that the judge never permitted him to read his complete statement in court.
"You know that if you take anything out of context you can twist it around and make it seem about me," Almena, 48, told the B.A.R. "This statement was about everything. I have been remorseful since the moment this happened."
The Ghost Ship master tenant said he was shocked when Cramer wouldn't let the plea deal go forward.
"My wife, she just wanted to die right then," Almena said referring to the moment the judge stunned the courtroom by throwing out the plea agreement. "It's not fair. It's just not fair."
Almena added that the details of the deal had been arranged and were agreed upon before the hearing and that the judge gave every indication that he approved of the deal.
"What really hurts is that I am one of the few people willing to take any responsibility," Almena said. "The DA was more than willing to go through with the horrific trial, further traumatizing the families in order to prove the city is not responsible, totally free from blame."
Almena said a fair trial for him now is not possible and that he was set up.
"No way," he said. "It's impossible to get a fair trial. They misquoted me. This has been orchestrated to the highest degree."
He added, "How am I going to find a jury that hasn't heard me say, 'I'm guilty.'"
As part of the plea agreement, Almena was required to admit guilt. The Ghost Ship chief said his ability to defend himself was also limited from the beginning because much of the evidence was destroyed before he was even arrested.
How could I defend myself when all of the evidence was dumped in a muddy field?" he said, reading from a statement that he said he was prevented from reading during his sentencing hearing last week.
Almena noted that numerous times firefighters, police officers, and child protective service officials looked over the Ghost Ship space and, in some cases, complimented him on it. In a previous interview with the B.A.R., Almena said that the building's owner, Chor Ng, was aware of how the space was being used and that he, not the owner, made safety improvements to the space.
Ng is reportedly set to collect more the $3 million in insurance money. She has not been charged, but prosecutors have not ruled out charges against her in the future. She is also one of two-dozen defendants, including the City of Oakland, Alameda County, and PG&E that are facing civil lawsuits.
Almena's attorney, Tony Serra, told the Associated Press on Monday that he will seek a change of venue for a trial if he can't work out another plea deal with prosecutors. The Alameda County District Attorney's office declined to comment on the interview. A new hearing on the case is scheduled Friday.
Derick Almena's statement
Below is Almena's complete statement that he read to the B.A.R. on Monday. It is the statement he says the judge kept him from reading in court:
"I am guilty. I am guilty for creating a small village of amazing artists. A true community working together to build itself. I am guilty for believing we were safe. I'm guilty for trusting numerous government agencies that came through and gave us a thumbs up and signed us off with multiple inspections and walkthroughs. Even though I did not organize, produce or host the event that night I am guilty for allowing it. I am guilty for not being there that night, and I am sure many of you agree. I am guilty for not sharing your children's fate.
"I should have died that night. What is the price of death and how do you measure loss? I have existed for this while as a father being charged with the murder of 36 beautiful souls. And ever-present in the background of this tragic landscape are those evolving through such terrible pain with compassion and understanding. And there are those crippled with hate and ridicule. Those that will never recognize my family as a victim in this, that I am a victim and a witness. Hate me if you will, and I want you to if it gives you something to focus on. Please do not allow it to further poison this gift of life. But remember you have been lied to. From the very beginning, you have never heard the truth and never had the opportunity to speak with me, hear from those who lived in the warehouse, to describe the conditions and lifestyle that attracted your loved ones again and again.
"Of course, you heard from our honorable Mayor Libby Schaaf, her lies about the city having no knowledge of the Ghost Ship and her continued lies about government agencies having entered the warehouse. Within days of the fire, rather than support the families with flights and services, the mayor chose to spend $90,000 of our money to hire a publicist to cover her assets with calculated disinformation, tainting any possibility of an impartial justice.
"I am broken-hearted and miserable. What really hurts is I am one of the few people willing to take any amount of responsibility. The DA was more than willing to go through with the horrific trial, further traumatizing the families in order to prove the city is no way responsible, totally free from blame. How could I defend myself when all of the evidence was destroyed and dumped in a muddy field? And supposed safe storage of evidence was violated six months before they finally came with guns to arrest me.
"I do not want to contribute to more suffering and I realize I am just a public offering on the altar of sadness and that my imprisonment will only momentarily satisfy the ultimate hunger and need for truth and justice.
"So the real question is: am I taking a deal to save the city millions of lawsuits and a very costly trial? Or am I truly the only one to blame?
"Please forgive me if you can. I am so sorry and I will live my life forever with this loss. Those were my friends and loved ones that perished in the fire that night. I couldn't fight this case for my freedom alone. I needed to help the families understand what happened that night and the years leading up to it. What now to do with all of the evidence collected, all of the information concerning the elusive owner's faults and their highly illegal unpermitted electrical system. And what of my relationship with the local fire department, the police department and the ever-present child protective services, whose safety standards far supersede that of common law enforcement. My side of the fight has always been to share all of this with the families and public. Does all of this crucial truth cease to exist as part of a deal to lay down and be silent?"
Contact the reporter at email@example.com.