OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU) - Derick Almena will be retried on manslaughter charges in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland that killed 36 people, Alameda County prosecutors said Friday, a month after a judge declared a mistrial in his case.
That means prosecutors must recall many of the same witnesses who had testified during the original, months-long trial in Oakland. This time, however, Almena will face charges by himself.
Last month, a jury acquitted co-defendant Max Harris and were hung on Almena's fate. Prosecutors hope to retry Almena as early as March. His attorneys say they're ready.
Attorney Tony Serra said, "We want to go to trial. We don't want to negotiate. We don't want to involve ourselves in any kind of plea agreement."
It will be the second plea deal in the case. Almena and co-defendant Max Harris initially agreed to jail time under a previous agreement, but a judge threw out that deal because he believed Almena hadn’t shown enough remorse.
Jrors said there were hopelessly deadlocked on whether Almena should be convicted on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count for each victim who died in the Fruitvale District warehouse. Judge Trina Thompson declared a mistrial for Almena. The jury foreman revealed that 10 were convinced of Almena’s guilt. Two others held out for his acquittal.
The same panel found Harris, Almena’s alleged second in command, not guilty of the same charges.
In a jailhouse interview Wednesday with KTVU, Almena said he believed no jury would ever convict him.
The split verdict capped a three-month trial during which survivors of the fire, Oakland police, firefighters and the defendants themselves took the stand.
The prosecution's case centered on criminal negligence. Authorities said Almena and Harris created the conditions that led to the deaths on Dec. 2, 2016. All the victims died from smoke inhalation. The majority had been trapped on the second floor where a music event was held. The cause of the fire was never determined.
But prosecutors Autrey James and Casey Bates said that didn't matter, as Almena illegally converted the building into a living space and party spot, even though the warehouse was supposed to be used only for storage.
The warehouse had never been properly inspected by building officials because the defendants - hoping not to get evicted - never secured the proper permits. Instead, the DA said, they jammed the building from floor to ceiling with RVs, tapestries, pianos and other material that essentially acted like kindling. The warehouse wasn't equipped with sprinklers, smoke alarms or audible alarms.
The victims had "no time, no notice and no ability to escape," James told the jury in closing arguments.
The men repeatedly maintained that no one lived at the building. This was the "party line" they stuck to as Oakland police and firefighters visited the building for various reasons in the years before the fire, James said.
But the defense cast the men as scapegoats. They said if government officials never reported any problems with the safety of the building, then Almena and Harris could not be expected to find fault themselves.
The defense floated the theory that the fire was caused by a band of disgruntled arsonists who were seen running from the building. One witness, Sharon Evans, testified she saw the men, wearing dark clothing, congratulating themselves after the fire.
But James said Evans' timeline didn't match and noted that she never reported what she saw to police.
The defense repeatedly asked why building owner Chor Ng and others weren't criminally charged in the case. Ng, the city of Oakland and the defendants have been named in civil lawsuits filed by families of the victims. The civil trial is expected to begin sometime next year.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson set a new trial date for Almena for Mar. 30.