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Ghost Ship victims’ families blast short jail terms in case

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Charred windows and walls of the artist’s collective Ghost Ship. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Family members and friends of the 36 people who died in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland in December 2016 expressed outrage today that the two men who entered pleas last month for their roles in the fire will only serve short jail terms.

At an emotional and packed sentencing hearing for Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 48, and creative director Max Harris, 28, the family members and friends also spoke movingly about how their lives have been devastated by the loss of the 36 people at the fire during a music party at the building at 1308 31st Ave. on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.

Almena and Harris pleaded no contest on July 3 to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for their roles in the blaze, which was the deadliest structure fire in California since the fire that erupted after the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.

Their plea agreement calls for Almena to serve 9 years in jail and Harris to serve 6 years. But their attorneys say that because of the credits the two men have already accumulated since being arrested in June 2017 they expect Almena to be released in three and a half years and Harris to be released in about 22 months.

Linda Regan, the mother of victim Amanda Allen Kershaw, 34, of San Francisco, said the terms mean that Almena will only serve 3 months for each of the 36 victims and Harris will only serve two months per victim.

Grace Kim, the mother of victim Ara Jo, 29, said she calculated that Jo should have lived at least another 50 years based on the average life expectancy of 79 years and she also calculated that the 36 victims should have lived a total of another 1,800 years based on their ages and life expectancies.

Kim said Almena and Harris were “grossly negligent” and their short sentences don’t reflect “the magnitude of our pain, suffering and loss.”   Chris Allen, the brother of Kershaw, said, “We feel betrayed and don’t feel that justice is being served here.”

Margaret Bohlka, the mother of victim Em Bohlka, 33, said, “I wish I could plea bargain my grief” but said she expects to mourn her daughter the rest of her life.

Terry Ewing, a friend of Jo, said he was upset that Alameda County Superior Court Judge Morris Jacobson, who facilitated the plea agreement, wasn’t at the sentencing hearing, nor was District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, who approved the deal.

Judge James Cramer is substituting at the unusually lengthy sentencing hearing, which is expected to conclude on Friday.

Court officials didn’t say why Jacobson wasn’t at the hearing, only saying that he was unavailable.

Ewing said, “It’s morally bankrupt that you, Judge Jacobson, would grant such short sentences.”

Almena and Harris lived at the warehouse with about 20 other people, including Almena’s wife and their young children.

At a preliminary hearing in the case last year, prosecutors said guests and residents were endangered by the warehouse’s makeshift electrical system and floor-to-ceiling load of pianos, wooden sculptures, pallets, motor campers, rugs, benches, tree limbs and tapestries.

Lesley Moran, the mother of the twin daughters of victim Alex Ghassan, 35, said one of the daughters, who were only 4 years old at the time of the fire, asked why the warehouse didn’t have a smoke alarm and she didn’t have a good answer for her daughter.

Referring to Ghassan’s death, Moran said, “We will feel the gulf of his loss every day for the rest of our lives.”

Gary Plotkin, the father of victim Vanessa Plotkin, 21, said that when he learned of her death “I just started crying uncontrollably.”

Plotkin said his daughter, who graduated from high school with the highest honors possible and was attending the University of California at Berkeley, “was on her way in life but she was ripped off.”

Plotkin said, “We were all ripped off.”

Tony Serra, Almena’s lead attorney, and Curtis Briggs, Harris’ lead lawyer, who have spoken to reporters after nearly all of the many court hearings in the case, rushed from court today without speaking to the large group of reporters who covered the sentencing.

When the hearing resumes on Friday morning Serra and Briggs will make statements on behalf of their clients and Almena and Harris are also expected to speak.

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