Two men associated with a warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif., that killed 36 people almost two years ago pleaded no contest to involuntary manslaughter on Tuesday and will each face several years in prison, prosecutors said.
The warehouse, which was illegally occupied and often referred to as the Ghost Ship, became the site of one of the nation’s deadliest structural fires in December 2016. Most of the victims were attending a party on the second floor and were unable to escape down a makeshift staircase.
About six months afterward, the authorities arrested and charged the two men — Derick Almena, the leaseholder, and Max Harris, who assisted him in a supervisory role in the building — in connection with the fire, alleging that they knowingly created a fire trap with what prosecutors said was an “inadequate means of escape.”
Teresa Drenick, an assistant district attorney for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, said Tuesday that the men, who each pleaded no contest to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, were expected to be sentenced on Aug. 9. Mr. Almena, she said, is expected to be sentenced to nine years in prison and three years on so-called supervised release; Mr. Harris is expected to be sentenced to six years in prison and four years of supervised release.
Had the case gone to trial, both men would have faced a maximum prison sentence of more than 35 years, Ms. Drenick said.
“They acted with reckless conduct, and that caused the death of 36 men and women,” she said. “With today’s pleas, not only do both they take responsibility, but they are now also found guilty of all 36 counts.”
As the master tenant, Mr. Almena had a managerial role among the residents of the warehouse, most of whom were artists seeking an affordable space in a city that has seen sharply rising housing costs in recent years. Mr. Harris was responsible for renting out the upstairs of the warehouse for the December 2016 party and prepared the space for the event, court documents said.
On the night of Dec. 2, the warehouse — which was filled with wooden antiques and curios — was quickly engulfed in flames and filled with a thick, choking smoke that rose to the second floor. Court documents said Mr. Almena collected “fence boards, shingles, window frames, wooden sculptures, tapestries, pianos, organs” and other “ramshackle pieces” that served as the kindling for the fire. And, in preparing for the party, Mr. Harris had “blocked off an area of the second floor that included a second stairwell, which effectively reduced the upstairs guests to a single point of escape,” the documents said.
A lengthy report, released in June of last year and compiled by local and federal agencies, provided many details about the fire, but did not identify a cause, The East Bay Times reported.
The party was also held without any permit from the city.
Lawyers for Mr. Almena, 48, and Mr. Harris, 28, did not immediately respond to phone messages seeking comment on Tuesday. But after Tuesday’s court hearing, Tony Serra, Mr. Almena’s lawyer, said his client had entered his plea as “a moral imperative to eliminate all of the drama and pain and suffering,” according to The East Bay Times.
Mr. Harris’s lawyer, Curtis Briggs argued, “The city of Oakland botched the entire situation.” (The fire highlighted failures in Oakland’s fire inspection system as well the city’s lack of affordable housing.)
In multiple media reports over two days, the family members of those who were killed have expressed dismay over the case’s outcome. One mother told The East Bay Times she felt it was as though prosecutors wanted to “get this one out of the way” in order to deal with other cases.
“That’s 36 lives, you know,” said David Gregory, the father of a 20-year-old victim, Michela Gregory, according to The Associated Press. “We wanted fair justice, and we didn’t get it.”
Ms. Drenick said her office had “never lost sight of the tragedy and its impact on family and friends,” noting that California law allows for victims to make statements during sentencing.
Melissa Gomez and Thomas Fuller contributed reporting.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter: @ByMattStevens.