Ghost Ship Defendants Take Plea Deal, Avoid Trial

Derick Almena and Max Harris will each spend less than a decade in Alameda County Jail.

Parents of one of the Ghost Ship victims hug next to a memorial. (Jessica Christian)

A large part of the tragic Ghost Ship saga has reached an end. According to the East Bay Times, warehouse leaseholder Derick Almena and event organizer Max Harris have accepted sentences in exchange for guilty verdicts, admitting their respective roles in 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Almena will receive nine years, and Harris six. After they formally accept their plea deals in front of a judge Tuesday, both will be kept local at the Alameda County Jail, instead of being transferred to a state prison.

The verdicts close the door on just some of the legal proceedings that were launched in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire, where 36 part attendees perished on Dec. 2, 2016, after a fire broke out and blazed through the 10,000-square-foot Fruitvale warehouse. For days firefighters sifted through the wreckage, searching for and identifying bodies. It was the deadliest fire in California since the 1906 earthquake. 

But the sentences seem lax for some family members of the victims. Sami Kopelman, the mother of Edmond Lapine who died in the fire, told the East Bay Times that she would have preferred they each receive 36 years, one for each victim. But Tony Serra, the lawyer representing Almena, says that this plea deal saves the families from sitting through weeks of a painful trial, complete with pictures of the bodies and wreckage. The trial was set to start on July 16. 

Previous coverage by the East Bay Times team, which won a Pulitzer for their work on the fire, showed footage from police bodycams as they investigated and cited the warehouse for multiple violations prior to the fire, ranging from fights to illegal parties. In the videos, the warehouse, which people both lived and worked in, is displayed as a chaotic jumble of objects, with tiny passageways and no clear signs for exits. 

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