Warehouse fire victims’ relatives tearfully testify in court

Relatives of the 36 people killed in a 2016 warehouse fire testified in court Thursday about the pain of losing loved ones as a judge started a two-day sentencing hearing for two men who pleaded no contest to 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter in a plea bargain deal.

Susan Slocumb was the first victim relative to speak, propping open a photo of her daughter Donna Kellog, 32. She asked for Derick Almena and Max Harris to be given lengthier sentences, saying they “got off easy in the plea deal.”

The two agreed to the plea bargain with the Alameda County district attorney’s office last month brokered by the judge presiding over the hearing, with Almena agreeing to a nine-year prison sentence and Harris to a six-year term.

Chris Allen, the brother of 34-year-old victim Amanda Allen Keyshaw, said he blames the city of Oakland for failing to inspect the warehouse annually where people lived and held parties and also saw the proposed sentences as lenient because Almena and Harris illegally converted the warehouse.

“We don’t feel justice has been fully served,” he said.

Prosecutors say Almena, 48, rented the warehouse he dubbed the Ghost Ship and illegally converted it into a residence and entertainment venue. Almena hired Harris, 28, to help collect rent and schedule concerts.

A quickly moving fire consumed the building on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, during an electronic music performance.

Before accepting their pleas last month, the judge read the name of each victim aloud at an emotional hearing, bringing tears from loved ones in the Oakland courtroom.

Prosecutors say the two defendants turned the warehouse into a “death trap” by cluttering it with highly flammable knick-knacks and blocking the few exits in the poorly lit building.

The men could have faced life in prison if convicted at a trial. Now, with good behavior, they are only expected to serve half their sentences after spending a year in jail.

Investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms said they were unable to determine a cause of the blaze.

Victims’ relatives allege in lawsuits that the Oakland Fire Department failed to inspect the warehouse annually as required. The lawsuit says inspectors would have discovered the illegal conversions.

Alex Katz, a spokesman for the Oakland city attorney, declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Warehouse owner Chor Ng, who has never been charged, did not return a phone message Wednesday.

The lawsuits claim Pacific Gas & Electric Co. failed to properly monitor, inspect and repair electrical equipment that provided power to the warehouse.

PG&E said in a statement that it cooperated with the investigation and that a review of its records found no electrical problems at the warehouse in the 10 years before the fire.

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