OAKLAND, Calif. — The California man responsible for operating the Ghost Ship artists’ collective, which was gutted in a 2016 blaze that killed 36 people, has been sentenced to 12 years for his role in those deaths.
Derick Ion Almena’s prison sentence was split, however, and, with credit for time served and good behavior, he will serve just 18 months at home. He will be on probation for three years once his sentence is completed.
The Associated Press reported that Almena, 50, was already on house arrest after concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic led to his release last year. His sentence will require him to complete his home incarceration wearing a GPS ankle monitor.
Almena pleaded guilty in January to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the Dec. 2, 2016, fire, which took place during a music event held at the Oakland venue.
Prosecutors argued that Almena was criminally negligent when he illegally converted the warehouse into living and work spaces for local artists. According to fire investigators, the building was filled with living spaces whose walls were fashioned out of highly flammable wooden pallets, furniture and other items.
Tenants obtained electricity through extension cords and power strips, and the building was known by occupants for its electrical problems.
The cluttered warehouse had no smoke detectors or sprinklers.
By pleading guilty to the 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, Almena “accepts his criminal responsibility for his role in the fire and the tragic loss of life” it caused, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said in a news release.
“Thirty-five out of the 36 people who lost their lives in this tragic fire were attending a concert that night. They had no idea just how dangerous the building really was,” O’Malley said. “They went to the Ghost Ship with the expectation of being entertained and returning safely home.”
The families of the victims were allowed to give victim impact statements via Zoom on Monday. Despite the video setup, their raw emotions came through loud and clear.
“It would have taken so little for you to give up just a pinch of your hipster ego for the sake of others,” Colleen Dolan, mother of victim Chelsea Dolan, said, according to ABC 7 in San Francisco. “Your swaggering ego killed 36 people.
“I curse you with the pain in your bones and your muscles that comes from clenching in fear as you face the fury of a firestorm coming to consume you. I do not forgive you. I never will.”
Carol Cidlik, whose daughter, Nicole Siegrist, texted her after the fire broke out, spoke about those final moments of life inside the warehouse.
“Nicole obviously knew she wasn’t getting out,” Cidlik said. “She texted me ‘I’m gonna die now.’ Nicole was my only child. This horrible crime has changed my life completely.”
The families of some of the victims were incensed as they begged Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson to disregard the sentence attached to Almena’s plea deal.
“This lenient, slap-on-the-wrist sentence is vastly inappropriate for the crimes Derick Almena committed,” victim Sarah Hoda’s family said in a statement read to the court, according to the AP. “Upholding the DA’s irresponsible plea recommendation would shortchange 36 victims and their families.”
Other families said Almena, the owners of the warehouse that housed the Ghost Ship and city regulation enforcement officials need to be held accountable for failures that led to the fire, the AP reported.
“I often ask, why was my son given a death sentence for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and those responsible for his and 35 others’ deaths are given a second chance at life?” said Emilie Grandchamps, the mother of fire victim Alex Ghassan, who died alongside his fiancée, Hanna Ruax. “I want my son’s death not to go in vain.”
Keith Slocum, whose stepdaughter, Donna Kellogg, died in the fire, said he was “repulsed” by the plea agreement.
“You do not take responsibility for your actions,” Slocum told Almena. “I am angry with this court in that it is a legal system, not a justice system.”
Thompson addressed the light sentence Monday at Almena’s sentencing hearing.
“I know that no family member will find this in any way acceptable, and I accept that responsibility,” Thompson said. “I wish I could, in the stroke of a pen, take away your deep loss and your sadness.”
In a statement read in court by his defense attorney, Almena said he is “sick with shame” over the fire, the AP reported.
“My shame cannot stand as any defense against what I am responsible for,” Almena’s statement read. “It is my fault, my terrible accumulation of error, that shaped and built a place so dangerous.”
The deadly fire broke out as an electronic music party was being held on the second floor of the illegally converted Ghost Ship warehouse. The building, located in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, had been turned into work and living spaces for local artists.
About 25 people were illegally living in the warehouse, according to the Oakland Fire Department’s report on the blaze.
The fire broke out shortly after 11 p.m. on the first floor of the warehouse as the party was underway upstairs. Between 80 and 100 people were in attendance.
Some of the warehouse residents were in their living spaces. Carmen Brito, a resident who placed the first 911 call, told fire investigators she awoke to smoke in her area of the building.
“Brito stated she got up and put on her shoes and coat, but felt like her movements were sluggish,” the fire report stated. “Brito stated she walked down her steps and noticed the living space of ‘Swan’ (Leah Vega) and ‘Dragon’ (David Calvera) was on fire. She believed the flames were approximately eight feet high.”
As people began to shout “Fire! Fire,” several residents attempted to use fire extinguishers against the flames. The fire spread too quickly, with wooden pallets, partitions and other flammable items serving as fuel.
Oakland fire battalion Chief James Bowron said during a 2018 speaking engagement that the Ghost Ship was filled with artwork, musical instruments and items that Almena had collected. Much of it would serve as kindling for the fatal fire.
“(Almena) put these small little trailers inside the building and then sublet these trailers out to people,” Bowron said at Firehouse World, a firefighting convention held in San Diego that year. “He had something screwed, welded, tacked, hammered or nailed to every square inch of that building.
“Everything was kind of like a labyrinth and everyone had their own cubicle space made out of palettes, made out of doors.”
Oakland firefighters at the department’s Station 13, located a block from the warehouse, were racing to respond to the fire call when people fleeing the Ghost Ship began frantically knocking on the station’s doors seeking help.
As the firefighters pulled out of the truck bay, they could already see heavy smoke pouring from the building. The fire quickly reached third alarm status and ultimately required more than 50 firefighters to extinguish the flames.
There were two staircases to the second floor, according to investigators. The front staircase was “constructed of various wooden planks and wooden studs, as well as portions of wooden pallets at its top where it accessed the second floor.”
The rear staircase, also made of wood, was in the northeast corner of the building.
“Occupants said the second-floor access to this stairway was concealed behind contents and furnishings,” the fire report stated. “The electric subpanel serving the second floor was located on the east wall at the top of the stairway.
“Neither stairway exited to the exterior of the building.”
The majority of the victims were found to have died on the second floor of the warehouse, unable to make their way down the narrow, rickety stairs and out of the building. Some bodies were found on the first floor but investigators determined they had fallen there when the floor beneath them caved in.
All 36 victims died of smoke inhalation, according to authorities.
Investigators interviewed multiple residents of the building who said the warehouse had electrical problems, including repeated power outages. Much of the tenants’ electrical supply was provided by extension cords and power strips that powered their lamps and appliances, like refrigerators and microwaves.
“Due to the crowded, complicated association of the rooms and adjoining rooms, (the occupants) did not know where all power supplies originated,” the fire report stated.
The makeshift hallways and walls cobbled together from “aggregates of salvaged and scavenged materials,” including multiple pianos, organs, wooden benches and lumber stacked next to and on top of each other contributed to not only the speed with which the fire spread but also the confusion as patrons tried to flee the smoke and flames.
“The warehouse was further divided into individual ‘cubicle’ live-work spaces by a conglomeration of makeshift items including but not limited to: wooden studs, steel beams, doors, window frames, bed frames, railings, pianos, benches, chairs, intact motorhomes and trailers, portions of trailers, corrugated metal sheeting, tapestries, plywood, sculptures, tree stumps and tree limbs,” the report stated.
“Tenants described several live-work units that were constructed of multiple levels to the height of the first-floor ceiling. The elevated units were variously described as lofts, perches, and tree forts, constructed of actual tree stumps and large dimensional lumber.”
Read the Oakland Fire Department’s entire report below.
Ultimately, fire investigators were able to determine that the blaze started in the northwest area of the building. They were unable to definitively say what caused the fire, however.
“Due to the nature of the electrical supply within the building, both fixed and temporary, a fault or failure of the electrical system cannot be eliminated,” the report stated.
Investigators were also unable to eliminate discarded or unattended smoking material, or an intentionally or carelessly introduced open flame, as the cause of the fire. Arson was not suspected.
“No conclusive determination of the initial heat source or the first materials ignited was made,” the report stated. “The fire classification is undetermined.”
A long road to justice
The criminal case has dragged on for more than four years as the families of those who perished awaited justice. Almena pleaded no contest to the charges against him in 2018.
He agreed to a 12-year sentence, with the last quarter of that sentence to be under supervised release. A judge rejected the deal, however, saying that that Almena had not expressed “full responsibility and remorse” for his actions, NBC News reported.
Judge James Cramer said he believed Almena’s co-defendant, Ghost Ship “creative director” Max Harris, was sincere. Since the plea deal covered both men, however, both guilty pleas were thrown out.
A jury in 2019 could not decide whether to convict Almena, triggering a mistrial. That same jury found Harris not guilty, the AP reported.
Harris, who helped Almena collect rent from the Ghost Ship’s tenants, apologized to the victims’ families in court in 2018. According to NBC News, he said he did not expect their forgiveness.
“I know nothing I can say will come close. I’m sorry,” Harris said at the time. “You’re in my prayers, and will be for the rest of my life.”
In January, Zita Gregory talked about the ways in which the death of her granddaughter, Michela Gregory, has impacted her family, according to the AP. She said her husband, who was fighting cancer at the time of the fire, died of the disease a year after his granddaughter was killed.
“His condition got worse. He used to say, ‘Why didn’t God take me instead?’” Gregory said tearfully.
Another of Gregory’s grandchildren, whose birthday is Dec. 2, no longer considers the day a celebration, she said.
“The fire destroyed our family — we have never been the same,” Zita said. “There’s never going to be just punishment for what all the victims lost.”