OAKLAND, Calif. - In a stunning development Friday, an Alameda County judge rejected plea deals for two men behind Oakland's deadliest blaze at an electronic dance party that killed 36 people more than a year ago, saying that the lead defendant didn't show enough remorse.
The surprising ruling means the lawyers will meet next week to see if there is any chance to negotiate some sort of agreeable plea, or the case will go back to trial, likely next year.
Judge James Cramer, echoing sentiments made by family members and victims, said the proposed nine-year sentence for Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena was not enough.
Some relatives of the Ghost Ship victims cried, others cheered and clapped when the judge announced his decision to reject the deal.
Colleen Dolan, whose daughter, Chelsea, 33, died in the fire, said she was shocked and hopeful. She and many other parents had wanted a trial to hear more details of that fateful and deadly night. Many parents thought the pair were getting a "sweetheart deal."
Harris' mother, who has never spoken publicly about the case, was outside court, looking devastated for her son. She did not give her name, but said she said she was also there in court to speak to any victims' families if they chose to seek her out. It didn't appear as though any did.
Although Cramer said the six-year proposed jail sentence for co-defendant Max Harris was sound, he had to reject that deal as well because the agreement between the two men was considered a "package deal." The pair had agreed on July 3 to plead no contest in exchange for these lighter sentences. If convicted at a trial, they each could have faced a potential of life in prison.
Cramer said it was something in Almena's 30-something page letter included in his probation report that convinced him that he didn't own up to his share of responsibility for the warehouse blaze on Dec. 2, 2016, and instead shifted blame to others. Almena has told KTVU that everyone is to blame for the fire including the city of Oakland, the landlord and even God.
“There are those crippled with hate and ridicule. Those who will never recognize me and my family as a victim. I’m a victim and a witness,” Cramer said, reading from Almena’s letter.
Both had faced 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in the Fruitvale district. Prosecutors alleged the pair created firetrap conditions that led to the deaths. Almena was the master tenant of the warehouse. Harris helped Almena collect rents and manage events.
Before they were sentenced, Almena, 48, and Harris, 28, addressed the court following a full day of victim impact statements on Thursday.
“I had pages and pages of excuses and explanations and apologies and they’re all insignificant now," Almena told the courtroom, wiping away tears. “It was never my intention of benefiting financially or for fame or ego...I can’t defend myself. I am in hell, OK? And that is why I said, blame God.”
Almena added to the surviving relatives: “Forgive me if you can. I’m sorry. If I could give you my childrens' lives, I would.”
Harris spoke too, for the first time.
"Every evening and every day I’ve prayed for the families," he said, ahead of the plea rejection. "Nothing I can say will bring you comfort. I feel it (pain)...in your words and the heartache in the community. I’m so deeply sorry and regret my actions and inactions."
KTVU's Candice Nguyen, Simone Aponte, Lisa Fernandez and Ryan Moran contributed to this report.