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The warehouse after the fire.

Men Accused in Oakland “Ghost Ship” Fire Agree to Plea Deal

A year and a half after a fire gutted the “Ghost Ship” warehouse in Oakland, California, killing thirty-six people, two men are expected to plead no contest to involuntary manslaughter charges and accept county jail sentences of six and nine years, according to East Bay Times. The blaze, which took place during a celebratory dance party on December 2, 2016, marked one of the deadliest structure fires in the United States in more than a decade.

The pleas by Derick Almena, 48, and Max Harris, 28, would avoid a jury trial, which was slated for July 16. Almena rented the 10,000-square-foot warehouse and used it as an art collective and commune without the proper permits; Harris served as the space’s creative director. The cause of the fire was never determined. The building was considered a creative safe haven for artists, musicians, and marginalized community members, and for many, its loss served as a reminder of the region’s need for affordable housing. 

Almena and Harris were accused of criminal negligence, with prosecutors citing the lack of sprinklers and smoke detectors in the building, as well as the fact that they blocked an exit the night of the party, among the reasons for the charges. Earlier, both men had pleaded not guilty to thirty-six counts of involuntary manslaughter and faced up to nearly four decades in prison if convicted. While the deputy district attorney for Alameda County, David Lim, wrote to families that the plea deal “spares the families from having to re-live the tragedy of Dec. 2,” some victims’ relatives expressed frustration with the deal. “It’s as though they [the prosecutors] said, ‘Let’s get this one out of the way . . . so we can deal with these murders . . . and give those the max attention,’” said Sami Kopelman, the mother of Edmond Lapine, who perished in the fire. “I don’t want my son’s life or those of the other victims, no matter what their circumstances were for being there, I don’t want the value of their lives to be lessened by a sweep aside,” she added. Almena and Harris are expected to make their pleas today, with sentencing likely occurring several months from now.

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