Ghost Ship master tenant pleads guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter

The master tenant of a cluttered, dilapidated warehouse where 36 people died in a fire pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter on Friday in a deal that will likely mean he won't spend any more time behind bars. 

Derek Almena is expected to be sentenced to 12 years in prison, but because of good behavior and time served, the 50-year-old artist and former master tenant of the Ghost Ship warehouse will not be spending any more time in custody. 

The 36 counts stem from the 36 lives lost during a house party fire in what's now infamously known as the Ghost Ship fire on Dec. 2, 2016. 

Since May, Almena has been home in Lake County on house arrest. He was released from custody after posting a $150,000 bail bond from Santa Rita Jail where he had been held since June 2017 due to coronavirus concerns.

Under the plea deal, Almena is likely to continue to be monitored by ankle monitor at home another 1½ years and be subject to three years of supervised probation.

He is expected to be sentenced on March 8. At that time, victims’ family members will be allowed to give impact statements.

Because of the pandemic, the court hearing before Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson was virtual. The audience could listen in only on an audio stream. 

Mary Alexander, a civil attorney who is representing the families of those who died in the fire, said the plea deal is a "real gut punch." 

"They are very upset that he is getting off with so little time and also that he’s going to be spending what time there is at home with his family," she said. "They think it’s very unfair – it’s not justice, it’s not enough time for 36 lives of these beautiful young people. They wanted to see the trial. They wanted more information. They wanted to hold him accountable in the courtroom. And that’s not happening and it’s upsetting to them."

Almena was charged with being criminally negligent when he illegally converted an industrial Oakland warehouse into a residence and event space for artists. They say he stuffed the building with flammable materials, extension cords, and it had no smoke detectors or sprinklers.

This was the second time a plea deal was offered to Almena and his co-defendant, Max Harris.

But Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer threw that deal out in 2018 after facing pressure from family members that it was too lenient and that Almena hadn't shown enough remorse. 

Under that deal, Almena was also supposed to have served nine years and Harris would have served six, if the arrangement hasn't been tossed by the judge.

So the case went to trial. 

And in September 2019, a jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of Almena's guilt, but could not reach a unanimous decision. Harris was found not guilty.