An Oakland judge on Friday rejected the plea deals for two men charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the 2016 Ghost Ship fire, a decision that could mean the pair will go to trial.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer said in court that 48-year-old Derick Almena didn't acknowledge responsibility or show remorse for the fatal blaze, which occurred during an unlicensed concert at a Fruitvale district warehouse that had been illegally converted to a living and event space.
The judge pointed to a 30-page letter Almena had submitted to probation officers prior to sentencing in which Cramer said Almena cast himself as a "victim and a witness."
The plea agreement had called for Almena to be sentenced to nine years in prison and 28-year-old Max Harris to six years. Harris helped plan the event that drew a crowd to the warehouse the night of the fire, Dec. 2, 2016.
In a day of wrenching victim impact statements Thursday, relatives of people who died in the blaze slammed the proposed sentences as too lenient.
Prosecutors said the two men had turned the warehouse into a "death trap" by cluttering it with highly flammable knick-knacks, blocking the building's few exits and failing to take adequate safety precautions before inviting the public inside.
Alberto Vega, whose brother Alex Vega died at the Ghost Ship, spoke to the court Friday morning, with a somewhat different message.
He said he understood Harris had lost friends in the fire and also pulled people out of the warehouse while it burned. He said Almena's negligence "caused all this."
"I don't want to hate you guys, and I don't," Vega said. "I don't want to see anybody go to jail."
Cramer said the plea deal would have been fair for Harris, but in rejecting it for one defendant, he was bound by the law to reject it for both.
"I am so deeply sorry and regret all of my actions, my inactions, my lack of foresight, my lack of awareness that led to this tragedy," Harris told victims' families during a statement he made in court Friday. "I don't even know what words to offer because words feel hollow. ... I don't expect forgiveness. I wouldn't ask for that. I'm sorry."
Several of Harris' friends and family also wrote letters or spoke in court on his behalf.
Almena's wife and 14-year-old daughter spoke on his behalf.
"I want to defend my father, of course. I want to say he tried very, very hard to make that warehouse a safe place, but that is not my place," Almena's daughter said. "We are not the victims here. I never, ever want to make it about us."
When he spoke, Almena began to sob.
"The only truth is how beautiful your children were," he said to the victims' families. "They were magnificent and the best our society has to offer."
Almena, who was staying with his family at a hotel the night of the blaze, said he should have died in the fire.
"If I could give each one of you my life, if I could give you my children's lives, I would," he said. His wife, Micah Allison, said "uh-uh" from the audience.
He also said he planned to have the names of the 36 people killed in the fire tattooed on his chest.
Prosecutor Autrey James told the judge after Almena's statement that the victims' families were offended by many of the things he said.
"They question whether or not Mr. Almena even remembers the names of all 36 victims," James said. He said Almena's statement about giving the lives of his children was "absolutely the most offensive thing that they heard, to a person."
Almena's attorney, Tony Serra, said that his client has a mental illness.
"He's been on suicide watch," Serra said. "He's been diagnosed with deep depression."
He also said he's prepared to take the case to trial and has a strong defense.
That includes the fact that investigators from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were unable to determine what caused the blaze.
Victims' families have alleged in lawsuits that several Oakland city agencies failed in their duty to inspect the warehouse building or follow up on complaints about the premises. The lawsuits also claim PG&E failed to properly monitor, inspect and repair electrical equipment that provided power to the building. Warehouse owner Chor Ng, who has not been criminally charged, is also a defendant in the civil cases.
In rejecting the deal sending the case toward trial next year, Cramer cautioned victims' families that they may not get what they're seeking in a criminal trial for Harris and Almena.
"Each of you is suffering immeasurably. A trial won't solve that," he said. "Those of you who want a trial to prove that the city or the Fire Department or the landlord is just as guilty as these two men are, you're not going to get that trial."
Alex Emslie of KQED News contributed to this post, which also contains reporting from The Associated Press.