8-year-plea agreement offered as package deal to Ghost Ship defendants

An Alameda County judge approved a potential plea agreement on Friday stating that both defendants Derick Almena and Max Harris will receive 8-year sentences if they agree to the deal for their involvement in the deadly Ghost Ship fire, attorney Tony Serra said.

After several hours in court Friday afternoon, the defendants were still considering the offer and the judge continued the hearing until Tuesday July 3. 

If one of them rejects the offer, Serra said they both must stand trial to face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count for each person who died in December 2016 warehouse fire. If convicted on all those counts, the maximum punishment would be 36 years in prison.

Under the proposed agreement, Serra said that the actual prison time served would be less than 8 years. Each of the defendants would earn credit for time served, and time off for good behavior. The actual time served would be just three more years in prison if both accept the deal. 

Alameda County prosecutors found the pair hoarded flammable materials from floor to ceiling in the warehouse, created an illegal party space, and even blocked one of only two exits from the second floor the night of the fatal fire.

Serra said Almena wants to save "everyone agony and anguish" and he's stepping up to "accept responsibility as a moral gesture." 

In an exclusive jailhouse interview with 2 Investigates, Almena said "to sit through months of parents looking at burned remains of their children, it's not even worth it. What that's going to do to their to their psyche and the world, that sadness is going to reverberate through the entire universe and just create more suffering. I can't be apart of that anymore."

One of Harris' attorneys, Tyler Smith, said he wasn't entirely satisfied with the package deal, but his client is considering it. Smith said his firm wants prosecutors to lower the number of years.

Ed Bernbaum, whose son, Jonathan died in the fire, told KTVU that whatever happens to Harris and Almena isn't of consequence to him. His son, who was a talented visual artist, is dead no matter if the pair go to prison.

"I haven't been following this at all," he said. "There's no much point in it. I've been receiving things from the District Attorney. But it's not something I've been thinking about."

He and his wife, Diane, decided against suing the city of Oakland, the landlord and the master tenants because they wanted to channel their energy into remembering their son in a positive manner. He co-founded a nonprofit called Vital Arts, which is working on raising funds to provide safe, affordable live-work spaces to rent to artists. His family also established the Jonathan Bernbaum Memorial Award for Autonomous Art to grant innovative artists' small grants to pursue their passions. 


KTVU's Lisa Fernandez contributed to this report.