Judge sets April 2nd trial date in Ghost Ship fire case

OAKLAND (BCN/KTVU) - In an expected move, Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris today formally withdrew their no contest pleas to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire at the warehouse in December 2016 that killed 36 people in Oakland.

Almena, 48, and Harris, 28, took that step in the aftermath of Alameda County Superior Court Judge James Cramer's surprising decision at the end of an emotional sentencing hearing on Aug. 10 to reject the plea agreement that the two men reached with prosecutors on July 3 that was brokered by another judge, Morris Jacobson.

Cramer said he couldn't accept the agreement because he thinks Almena hasn't fully acknowledged his responsibility for his role in the fire or shown sufficient remorse.

Almena gave KTVU a letter today, saying the rejection of the plea deal was "a set up. A one-sided mini trial and a morbid publicity stunt organized by the D.A. My fate was already decided."

He also says that he submitted a statement to Judge Cramer ahead of August's sentencing hearing that he intended to read in open court, but that the judge allegedly forbid him from reading it.

In his letter to KTVU, Almena said, "I was warned by Judge Cramer... that in order to continue ahead with the 'deal' I would not be allowed to read a prepared statement that I had submitted to the court weeks in advance. He said it was too argumentative and deflective of guilt."

Almena provided KTVU a copy of the hand-written statement he said he intended to read in front of the fire victims' families. It's annotated with a note at the top that says, "This is the statement that I wanted to read but was blocked by Judge Cramer - then he misquoted from it - and used it against me out of context."

READ: Statement to victims' families that Ghost Ship defendant says he was forbidden to read in open court

After Almena and Harris withdrew their no contest pleas Friday and entered not guilty pleas again, Cramer scheduled their trial to begin next April 2, saying that date is "set in stone."

Cramer also scheduled a hearing for Oct. 12 on a motion filed by Almena's lawyer Tony Serra which alleges that Cramer erred in rejecting a plea agreement and a hearing on Nov. 2 on another motion by Serra seeking to move the trial out of Alameda County on the grounds that the case has received so much publicity that Almena and Harris can't get a fair trial locally.

Outside of the courtroom, Serra said of the prosecution, "They want a trial. They're going to get a trial." 

Thirty-six victims between the ages of 17 and 61 died of smoke inhalation in the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Dec. 2, 2016.

Prosecutors allege that guests and residents were endangered by the warehouse's makeshift electrical system and floor-to-ceiling load of pianos, wooden sculptures, pallets, motor campers, rugs, benches, tree limbs and tapestries.

They also say the warehouse had no city permits for residency or for the concerts and shows that were held there and allege that Almena and Harris knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape.

After today's brief hearing, Serra says he thinks he has a good chance of winning his motion alleging that Cramer acted improperly in rejecting the plea deal, which called for Almena to serve nine years in the county jail and for Harris to serve six years.

Harris' lawyer Curtis Briggs said he hasn't yet joined Serra's motion because he wants Harris to go to trial so he can be "vindicated" and found not guilty.

Briggs said he also doubts he will join Serra's motion to try to move the trial out of Alameda County because he thinks Harris will have a better chance of convincing local jurors that he's not guilty than he will of convincing jurors in another county.