Man accused in fire that killed 36 expected to plead guilty

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FILE – This Monday, June 5, 2017, file photo released by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office shows Derick Almena at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif. Almena awaiting retrial in a fire that killed 36 partygoers at a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse was released from jail Monday, May 4, 2020, because of the coronavirus outbreak. Almena, 50, was released from the Santa Rita Jail after a teleconference hearing Monday, the Alameda County Sheriff’s office said. (Alameda County Sheriff’s Office via AP, File)

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — A man facing a second trial after a fire killed 36 partygoers at a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse he’s accused of illegally converting into a cluttered artists enclave is expected to plead guilty later this month, relatives of several of the victims said.

Derick Almena, 50, is expected to plead guilty to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter on Jan. 22, families of several fire victims toldthe East Bay Times Wednesday.

The relatives said Alameda County prosecutors told them during a video call Wednesday that in exchange for his guilty plea Almena will get a nine-year sentence — though he may serve little or none of it because of time already served and good behavior while he was incarcerated.

Prosecutors and Almena’s attorneys cannot comment on the case because they remain under a gag order imposed by Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson.

Almena is charged in the Dec. 2, 2016, fire that swept through an electronic music party at the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland.

Prosecutors allege Almena, who was the master tenant on the lease, was criminally negligent when he turned the industrial building into a residence for artists and held events without proper permits.

The building was packed with furniture, extension cords and other flammable material but had only two exits and no smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinklers, prosecutors say.

Almena, who was released from jail over coronavirus concerns, likely won’t be locked up again, though he may continue to be monitored in his home another 1 1/2 years and be subject to three years of supervised probation.

A jury deadlocked on the charges in September and a new trial has been scheduled for July. Almena’s co-defendant, Max Harris, was acquitted of the same charges.

“My heart dropped, especially when I heard it was going to be a slap on the wrist. I want my daughter back; we want to be with our family members who died. He gets to be with his family,” said Colleen Dolan, the mother of victim Chelsea Faith Dolan.

She said families were not informed of the plea deal possibility before Wednesday.

“I’m totally disappointed in how the DA’s handled this case and even more in the outcome,” said David Gregory, whose daughter Michela Angelina Gregory died in the fire. “I guess now we are supposed to just move on with our lives as if this is something we should just accept.”

Almena had been behind bars since 2017 but was released from jail in May because of coronavirus concerns and after posting a $150,000 bail bond.

He remains on house arrest with an ankle monitor in the city of Upper Lake, where he lives with his wife and children.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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