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Prison sentences expected for warehouse fire that killed 36

Posted at 7:25 AM, Aug 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-09 08:25:41-04

By PAUL ELIAS Associated Press
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – Two men who pleaded no contest to 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter will face the families of those who died in a fire at an illegally converted Northern California warehouse as they are sentenced for the crimes.

A two-day sentencing hearing for Derick Almena and Max Harris is scheduled to begin Thursday in Oakland. Relatives of the victims are expected to testify about their losses Thursday before a judge sentences the men on Friday.

Prosecutors say Almena, 48, rented the warehouse he dubbed the Ghost Ship and illegally converted it into a residence and entertainment venue. Almena hired Harris, 28, to help collect rent and schedule concerts.

A quickly moving fire consumed the building on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, during an electronic music performance.

Before accepting their pleas last month, the judge read the name of each victim aloud at an emotional hearing, bringing tears from loved ones in the Oakland courtroom.

Prosecutors say the two defendants turned the warehouse into a “death trap” by cluttering it with highly flammable knick-knacks and blocking the few exits in the poorly lit building.

The two men agreed to a plea bargain with the Alameda County district attorney’s office last month brokered by the judge presiding over the hearing. Almena agreed to a nine-year prison sentence and Harris agreed to a six-year term.

The men could have faced life in prison if convicted at a trial. Now, with good behavior, they are only expected to serve half their sentences after spending a year in jail.

David Gregory, whose 20-year-old daughter, Michela Gregory, was among the victims, said outside court last month that he was dissatisfied with the outcome of the criminal case.

“That’s 36 lives, you know,” he said. “We wanted fair justice, and we didn’t get it.”

Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said they were unable to determine a cause of the blaze.

Gregory and other victims’ relatives allege in lawsuits that the Oakland Fire Department failed to inspect the warehouse annually as required. The lawsuit says inspectors would have discovered the illegal conversions.

Alex Katz, a spokesman for the Oakland city attorney, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Warehouse owner Chor Ng, who has never been charged, did not return a phone message Wednesday.

The lawsuits claim Pacific Gas & Electric Co. failed to properly monitor, inspect and repair electrical equipment that provided power to the warehouse.

PG&E said in a statement that it cooperated with the investigation and that a review of its records found no electrical problems at the warehouse in the 10 years before the fire.

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