The Dec. 2, 2016 Ghost Ship fire was the deadliest structure fire in the U.S. in more than a decade. The warehouse's primary leaseholder and the architect of what it became — Derick Almena — and a tenant who helped organize the show that evening — Max Harris — each faced up to a 39-year sentence, according to prosecutors.
But under the terms of the plea agreement heard Tuesday in Alameda County Superior Court, Almena agreed to a nine-year jail sentence with four years of supervised release. Max Harris agreed to a six-year jail sentence with four years of supervised release.
Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson read each of the 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter to both Harris and Almena during the hearing, naming each of the 36 dead and asking each defendant for his plea.
Harris and Almena both spoke softly and said "no contest" 36 times, each.
"I will accept your answers," Jacobson said from the bench. "I will use them and I will find you guilty."
About a dozen family members of the dead attended the hearing, some sobbing quietly as the judge read the charges.
Prosecutors presented several witnesses during a weeklong preliminary hearing in the case late last year, aiming to prove that Almena and Harris received numerous warnings about the danger of the warehouse stuffed with wooden furniture, makeshift living spaces, a shoddy electrical system and a homemade staircase that wasn't to code.
Former residents testified that Almena made decisions for the group, but some described the community as a leaderless collective. Harris helped Almena collect rent and scheduled concerts, according to testimony.
"Finally, Mr. Almena and Mr. Harris have taken responsibility for their actions in the death of 36 individuals on Dec. 2, 2016," Deputy District Attorney Autrey James said after the hearing on Tuesday.
"We have worked with the families throughout this entire process," he said, his voice shaking. "You can imagine it has not been easy for the families or the attorneys involved."
Almena and Harris' attorneys previously argued that Oakland had implicitly signed off on the space by failing to sanction Almena despite multiple visits to the address by police, firefighters and city inspectors, among other officials. They said the prosecution would have a difficult time proving their case at trial because the ultimate cause of the fire was never determined.
"We had viable defenses," said Almena's defense attorney, Tony Serra. "This is a plea that has been entered into as a moral imperative — to eliminate all the trauma and pain and suffering that everyone who touches this case endures."
David Gregory, whose daughter Michela Gregory and her boyfriend Alex Vega died at the Ghost Ship, said he would have preferred the case go to trial. He called the expected sentences "questionable."
"We just wanted some justice, some fair justice," he said.
With time credited for good conduct, Harris is expected to serve 22 more months, according to his attorney. Almena will likely serve about 3½ more years. Both men have been in jail for a year awaiting trial.
They remain defendants in a pending civil case that also alleges liability from the city of Oakland and the property's owner.
Both defendants are scheduled for a sentencing hearing beginning Aug. 9. The hearing is expected to last at least two days.
"We will be presenting witnesses who will testify on his [Almena's] behalf at the sentencing hearing, and obviously the victims’ family will be presenting their perspective," Serra said. "It will be a very agonizing session."
This post contains reporting from the Associated Press.