OAKLAND, Calif. - Loved ones representing 13 families began taking the stand on Thursday, reading powerful impact statements directed at two men about to be sentenced for their roles in the deadly Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people more than a year and a half ago.
Susan Slocum, the mother of Donna Kellogg, who was killed in the fire, said: "Mr. Almena and Mr. Harris got off easy in their plea deal. Our loved ones’ deaths cannot be in vain. There must be a catalyst of change for Oakland’s housing crisis."
She said her red-headed daughter was getting her degree as a nutritional consultant and loved to ride her bike everywhere before she died in the blaze on Dec. 2, 2016.
In an interview before the hearing, mother Colleen Dolan said that not having a trial is painful to her. "That does not spare me at all. I have nightmares. Every night I have constant visions of that fire and of Chelsea trapped inside,” she said of her daughter, who was among the victims. “Spared? I have not been spared from anything. If anything, I need to know the details. I need to know what really happened.”
The testimony in Alameda County Superior Court before Judge James Cramer will last through Friday, when Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 48, is expected to be sentenced to nine years in jail and creative director Max Harris, 28, is expected to be sentenced to six. Neither showed any emotion during the testimony. Cameras were not allowed in the courtroom.
Both will spend about half of their sentences in jail in Alameda County jail, earning credit for time served and good behavior. That means Almena is looking at spending a total of three and a half more years in jail and Harris another two. The pair pleaded no contest as part of a package deal last month.
Both had faced 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and are the only two criminally blamed for the fire in which 36 people died an an electronic dance party in the Fruitvale neighborhood. 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.
Slocum told the courtroom that she is not happy with the plea deal. "Electric shock went through me," she said. "I fear this plea will set a bad precedent."
Before the hearing, Almena gave an exclusive interview to KTVU in June, explaining why he wanted to plead no contest.
“I wanted to offer myself up some level of responsibility,” Almena said. “I don’t think anyone is going to win this trial; it’s already a tragedy,” he said later.
A separate civil case is still working its way through the courts, which calls out the warehouse owner’s family, the Ngs, along with PG&E and the City of Oakland. Civil attorneys told KTVU the plea deal helps the civil case because both Almena and Harris can speak freely about the other defendants in the civil case. The Alameda County District Attorney could also provide evidence that would normally be sealed if the criminal case was ongoing.
Fire investigators have not been able to determine a cause for the building fire, however, in court, a fire official suspected it may have been caused by electrical issues.
KTVU's Brooks Jarosz, Henry Lee, Candice Nguyen and Simone Aponte contributed to this report.