FILE - This combination of June 2017 file booking photos provided by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office shows Max Harris, left, and Derick Almena, at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif. A judge will hear a motion asking the court to uphold a plea bargain that was reached with the two men accused of being responsible for a warehouse fire that killed two dozen people at an unlicensed party. (Alameda County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

Judge's vacation delays fatal warehouse fire court case

October 12, 2018 - 2:46 pm

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A judge's vacation and miscommunication led to another delay Friday in the court case connected to a Northern California warehouse fire that killed 36 people two years ago.

Attorneys for Derick Almena, one of two men charged criminally, had planned to urge a judge Friday to restore a plea deal that called for Almena to serve nine months in prison.

But a judge said Alameda County Judge Kevin Murphy, who was supposed to hear the case, had just returned from vacation on Friday and needed more time to prepare.

Judge James Cramer, who rejected the plea deal at issue, said Friday it appeared the court failed to notify attorneys of the need to reschedule. The next court date is Oct. 26.

Almena, 48, and Max Harris, 28, each face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the December 2016 fire. Almena rented the warehouse and illegally converted it into a live-work space for artists and an entertainment venue, prosecutors said. They said Almena hired Harris to help collect rent and schedule concerts, including the electronic music show on the night of the fire.

The men agreed to plead no contest to every count in August, with Harris to receive a six-year prison sentence. But Cramer rejected the plea deal after relatives of the victims complained that the proposed prison terms were too lenient. Cramer said he rejected the plea deal because he felt Almena failed to show remorse.

Almena's attorney, Tony Serra, rejected that notion outside court Friday, saying his client is depressed and has gained 60 pounds in the 15 months he's been in jail.

"He's as remorseful as humanly possible," Serra said.

Outside court, after the hearing, victims' relatives said they are growing impatient with the pace of the court proceedings.

Mary Vega, whose 22-year-old son died in the fire, groused about the slow pace. "It's extremely frustrating," said Mary Vega, whose 22-year-old son Alex died in the fire.

Vega objected to the proposed plea deal and said she wants both men to spend the rest of their lives in prison.

The plea deal had been brokered by another judge and Almena's lawyer said Cramer should have honored the agreement. It also included Harris, and Cramer said he believed Harris was truly remorseful, but since the plea bargain was a package deal, he said he had no choice but to reject his proposed sentence.

Harris' lawyer, Tyler White, said his clients won't take part in Almena's attempt to enforce the plea deal. White said his client reluctantly agreed to the plea deal and now that it's gone, he likes his chances at trial.

Prosecutors charge that Almena and Harris filled the warehouse with highly flammable furniture, art pieces and other knick-knacks that made it difficult for new visitors to quickly find exits. The cause of the fire has never been determined.

They are the only people facing criminal charges for the deadliest structure fire since 100 people died in a Rhode Island nightclub fire in 2003.

Both men have been in jail since June 2017.

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