A July 2020 mistrial led to no convictions for Derick Almena on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection to the fire that ravaged Oakland warehouse venue Ghost Ship in December 2016. The matter was set for retrial, and Almena pled guilty to all counts – one for each life lost in the blaze.
Few who lost a loved one to the tragedy are satisfied with the outcome. Mercury News reports that Almena, 50, entered into a plea deal that reduced his prison sentence to 12 years. Between time already served and credit awarded to him for good behavior, however, it’s possible that he will only have to remain on house arrest for another year and a half due to prison depopulation measures taken due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After that, he will be subject to supervised probation for three years.
Almena is set to be formally sentenced on March 8th, and family members of the Ghost Ship fire victims hope to convince the judge to impose a stricter penalty. “We can make our voices heard,” Colleen Dolan, the mother of Chelsea Faith Dolan. “All we can do is speak up and represent our children.”
Attorney Mary Alexander, who represents the majority of the victims, doesn’t expect their efforts to sway the decision. “Just the way things are posturing, I would doubt it would change anything,” she said.
In 2013, Derick Almena entered into the lease for the industrial space that he would later name Ghost Ship. He used it to host art galleries and dance parties in addition to illegally renting out space on the first floor to roughly 25 tenants.
Investigators never determined the exact cause of the blaze that tore through Ghost Ship on December 2nd, 2016, but they found that excessive debris scattered in and around the space accelerated its spread. All 36 victims died of smoke inhalation, according to a Alameda County Arson Task Force report. 2014 emails between Almena and the property’s landlord, Chor Ng, showed that Almena had been aware of the building’s electrical issues since that time at the latest.
After his 2017 arrest, Almena was released on house arrest in May 2020 on account of a medical condition rendering him susceptible to COVID-19. Violation of any terms of the plea deal could increase his prison sentence to 39 years.