Attorney: Derick Almena not criminally liable for Ghost Ship fire

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The operator of an Oakland warehouse where 36 people died in a massive fire is experiencing a near mental breakdown following his arrest on involuntary manslaughter charges, his attorneys said Friday.

Lawyer Tony Serra disclosed the details about his client, Derick Almena, at a news conference, using a photo of Almena and his family as a backdrop.

Serra said Almena is experiencing “almost total destruction of his mental stability.” Jeffrey Krasnoff, another attorney for Almena, said Almena was “deeply distraught.”

“People died in his house. He is definitely having mental problems processing this, like anyone would,” Krasnoff said.

Serra claimed prosecutors charged Almena to shield the true culprits — public agencies that failed to ensure the warehouse was safe.

Authorities say Almena, 47, rented the warehouse and illegally converted it into low-cost housing for artists and an entertainment venue.

Almena and a second man, Max Harris, 27, were arrested Monday after a six-month investigation of the Dec. 2 fire that occurred during an unpermitted electronic music concert at the building known as the Ghost Ship.

Almena leased the building and Harris helped him sublet space to tenants and promoters, even though the warehouse was not licensed for housing or entertainment, prosecutors said.

They said the site was cluttered with highly flammable material and the suspects failed to provide adequate fire safety systems.

Almena appeared in court on Thursday but did not enter a plea. His arraignment on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter was continued until June 15.

Harris is also expected to be arraigned that day. He has no attorney on record.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has issued the following statement:

“While it is a defense attorney’s job to redirect attention away from their client, it is the District Attorney’s duty to hold those responsible for this tragedy accountable. I believe the exhaustive criminal investigation and subsequent charges filed by District Attorney Nancy O’ Malley do just that.

“The reckless and deceptive actions of Derick Almena and Max Harris claimed 36 innocent lives. For years, they worked hard to escape legal scrutiny and deceive City officials. Because of their callous disregard for human life, they deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

“The charges filed send a clear message: you won’t get away with making a profit by cramming people into dangerous spaces or failing to maintain safe living conditions.”

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