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Retrial For Man In California Warehouse Fire That Killed 36

D. Ross Cameron
AP Photo
Makeshift memorials erected to the victims of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire, photographed Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019 in Oakland, Calif.

The founder of an artists' work-live collective in the San Francisco Bay Area where a fast-moving fire trapped and killed 36 partygoers three years ago will be tried again on manslaughter charges, prosecutors said Friday.

Alameda County prosecutors said they decided on a retrial after a jury last month deadlocked on whether to find Derick Almena, 49, guilty or innocent. Jurors split 10-2 in favor of finding him guilty.

The same jury acquitted his co-defendant Max Harris, 29, of manslaughter charges in September after an emotionally taxing three-month trial that drained family and friends of defendants and victims.

Sobs and gasps erupted from stunned family and friends of the victims when the judge declared a mistrial.

Judge Trina Thompson set a new trial date in March. She also denied a motion by defense attorneys to reduce bail for Almena from $750,000 to $50,000. He has been jailed for more than two years.

"It seems that there is going to be no negotiation," said Tony Serra, Almena's attorney. "There is going to be a trial."

Almena's wife, Micah Allison, said she was sad that the judge refused to lower his bail because Almena wants to be at home with his children.

"I want people to know there are people all over the world praying for our family and they want to see him come home to his children," she said.

Allison added: "The remorse everyone feels is immeasurable. We will never be the same."

The Dec. 2, 2016, fire broke out during an electronic music party at the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, killing 36 mostly young partygoers.

Prosecutors allege Almena was criminally negligent when he illegally converted the industrial building into a residence for artists and held unpermitted events inside.

The building was packed with furniture, extension cords and other flammable material but had only two exits and no smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinklers, prosecutors say.

The blaze killed many young people trapped on the illegally constructed second floor. Prosecutors said the victims received no warning and had little chance to escape down a narrow, ramshackle staircase.

Almena's attorneys argued city workers were to blame for not raising concerns about fire hazards in the warehouse and said the fire was arson. Investigators have never found its cause, meaning arson cannot be ruled out.

Almena and Harris had pleaded no contest to manslaughter and were set to be sentenced last year to nine and six years in prison, respectively. But a judge threw out their pleas after many of the victims' families objected.