Plea deals expected for 2 California men for warehouse fire
OAKLAND, Calif. – Two men are expected to accept plea-bargain prison sentences Tuesday to resolve felony charges connected to a Northern California warehouse fire that killed three dozen partygoers at an unlicensed concert in 2016.
Derick Almena and Max Harris will plead guilty in exchange to prison sentences of less than 10 years each, Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra, said.
They will likely be released after serving half their sentences because of time off for good behavior.
Tyler Smith and Curtis Briggs, lawyers representing Harris, said that under the agreement their client would get six years and Almena would be sentenced to nine years in prison. The deal was reached after more than two hours of negotiations Friday, they said.
The judge asked lawyers to refrain from discussing details until the defendants appear in court.
Alameda County prosecutor Teresa Drenick declined to comment.
Almena rented the warehouse and illegally converted into a residence and entertainment venue. Harris helped Almena collect rent and schedule for-profit music shows.
A fire quickly destroyed the structure during a December 2016 electronic music performance, killing 36 attendees unable to find exits.
Parents of some of victims said they were disappointed with the short prison sentences.
David Gregory, whose 20-year-old daughter, Michela Gregory, was among the victims, said he was shocked by the sentences, which he thought were far too short.
“These people are going to be out in a few years and walking the streets,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “They’re getting a sweet deal, and they’re going to do easy time.”
Sami Kopelman, the mother of 34-year-old Edmond Lapine, who died in the fire, said she, too, thinks the sentences are too lenient. She said she would have liked to see each defendant get 36 years in prison, one for each life lost.
“I don’t want my son’s life or those of the other victims, no matter what their circumstances were for being there, I don’t want the value of their lives to be lessened by a sweep aside,” Kopelman told the East Bay Times.
Prosecutors say Almena and Harris turned the cluttered building into a “death trap” with few exits, rickety stairs and dark and dangerous passageways. Each man was charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Almena lived in the warehouse with his wife and three children. But the family was staying in a nearby hotel the night of the fire.
Harris also lived in the warehouse and escaped the fire unharmed.
Almena’s attorney Serra said his client agreed to plead guilty in exchange for an eight-year prison term. However, the details of that deal could have changed during the lengthy negotiations.
Serra said a plea deal will spare the victims’ families from testifying at a trial where photos of burned bodies and other emotionally fraught evidence would be shown.
Both men have already been credited with two years of imprisonment for the years they have spent in jail.
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