Key figure charged in fatal warehouse fire nears plea deal

Key figure charged in fatal warehouse fire nears plea deal
The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A plea deal is close at hand for the central figure charged in connection with a Northern California warehouse fire that killed three dozen partygoers at an unlicensed concert in 2016, his attorney said Friday.

Derick Almena and prosecutors have tentatively agreed to an eight-year prison sentence to resolve 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter, defense lawyer Tony Serra said. He warned that talks could still break down during a meeting Friday to finalize the deal with a judge.

“We are 85 percent there,” Serra said.

Almena, 48, rented the Oakland warehouse dubbed the “Ghost Ship” and illegally converted it into a residence and entertainment venue. Prosecutors charged Almena with turning the cluttered building into a “death trap” with few exits, rickety stairs and dark and dangerous passageways.

Almena, his wife and three children lived in the warehouse but were staying in an Oakland hotel the night of the fire, which broke out during an electronic music performance in December 2016.

In an interview with San Francisco Bay Area news station KTVU-TV, Almena says he “didn’t put a bullet in anybody” but is ready to accept responsibility for the blaze, which became the nation’s deadliest structure fire since flames swept a Rhode Island nightclub in 2003 and killed 100 people.

If an agreement is reached, Almena is expected to be released from prison in three years with time off for good behavior. Serra said there’s a possibility his client could be freed in two years.

Almena has been in jail since June 2017 and was expected to be credited for time served.

California inmates typically serve half their sentence if they have a good disciplinary record in prison. Serra said Almena also is eligible for a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation sentence reduction because involuntary manslaughter charges are classified as non-violent.

Alameda County prosecutor Teresa Drenick declined to comment.

Almena was scheduled to start trial next month along with Max Harris, who helped manage the warehouse and also is charged with 36 counts of manslaughter.

Serra said a plea deal will spare the victims’ families from testifying at a trial where photos of burned bodies and other emotionally fraught evidence would be shown.

Serra said Harris and his lawyers also were negotiating a plea deal. Harris’ attorney, Curtis Briggs, didn’t return phone calls and text messages Friday.