OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- Derick Almena, the master leaseholder of the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse which burned in a December 2016 fire that killed 36 people, accepted a plea deal Friday morning that would avoid a second trial and likely any prison time.
As part of the deal, Almena pleaded guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter and faces a possible 12-year prison sentence. However, it remains unclear whether Alemena would serve any prison time, based on time already served and good behavior.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public and the victims' families were not allowed in the courtroom for Friday's hearing. Families watched the hearing on a video live-stream.
Almena ignored media questions when he walked into the courthouse.
Almena served nearly three years at Santa Rita Jail before he was sent to home confinement in May 2020, when authorities freed non-violent offenders after a COVID outbreak within the facility.
Mary Alexander, the attorney for 11 victims' families, told KPIX 5 she believes because of the pandemic, Almena will serve whatever remaining jail time at home.
"One of the things is, it's more difficult now with COVID to try a case and to find jurors who will come in under the circumstances," Alexander said.
The attorney said her clients disagree with the prosecutors on a plea deal and wanted a trial instead.
"I don't expect Almena will be spending any more time behind bars and that's very upsetting to the families. It's not punishment. It's not accountability," Alexander said.
Almena remains on electronic monitoring, said Judge Trina Thompson, who presided at the hearing Friday in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland. Sentencing has been scheduled for March 8, in which the victims' families are expected to speak and address Almena.
A second trial for Almena had been scheduled for last year, but got delayed in part due to the pandemic.
The fire occurred on the evening d of Dec. 2, 2016, during a dance party at the warehouse on the 1300 block of 31st Avenue. Shoddy electrical wiring sparked the fire that killed 36 people, many young adults.
A lengthy trial for Almena and co-defendant Max Harris, the warehouse's artistic director, ended last Sept. 5 with jurors deadlocked 10-2 in favor of convicting Almena and acquitting Harris of all charges. Harris was released from custody later that day but Almena remained in custody in lieu of $750,000 bail.
In 2018, Almena accepted a plea deal including nine years prison time. But that deal later fell apart when the judge felt Almena did not show remorse for his role in the fire.
The Oakland City Council last November approved a settlement giving a total of $399,000 to 12 people who were once residents of the Ghost Ship warehouse before it burned down, according to council records.
That settlement followed the approval in July of $32.7 million, which was given to one victim who survived and some of the families of the victims who died.
Last week, families of the Ghost Ship fire victims said they were upset to learn about the possible plea deal for Almena.
"I had a heavy, sinking feeling this is as close to justice as we're going to get, and that's not very close at all," said Colleen Dolan, whose daughter Chelsea Faith Dolan died in the fire.
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