OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Tearful relatives of the 36 people killed in a 2016 Northern California warehouse fire testified Thursday that the involuntary manslaughter plea deals the two defendants reached with prosecutors is too lenient, with one calling it a "sweetheart deal."
The man who rented the warehouse and turned it into an artsy living and entertainment space, Derick Almena, 48, pleaded no contest to the charges in exchange for a nine-year prison sentence. Max Harris, 28, who collected warehouse rent and scheduled its concerts, also pleaded no contest in return for a six-year term.
Cyrus Hoda, the brother of fire victim Sarah Hoda, 30, said the resolution smacked of a "sweetheart deal" to him, labeling Almena and Harris as "culture vultures" trying to become San Francisco Bay Area arts players by luring people to a dangerous place to live and party.
The warehouse burned quickly on Dec. 2, 2016 during a music concert. Alameda County district attorney Nancy O'Malley said the two men had turned the warehouse into a "death trap" by cluttering it with highly flammable knick-knacks, blocking the building's few exits and failing to make adequate safety precautions before inviting the public inside.
Chris Allen, brother of 34-year-old victim Amanda Allen Keyshaw, and his parents traveled from the Boston area to attend the sentencing hearing. As his mother sobbed outside court, Allen said the family did not feel "justice has been fully served."
Dressed in jail garb, Almena looked unemotionally at the relatives as they testified while Harris stared at Judge James Kramer, who approved the plea deal last month.
Kramer told relatives of victims to try to keep their emotions in check during the testimony, which he said would be "a heart-wrenching hearing as befits the enormous loss in this case."
The two could have faced life in prison if convicted at a trial. Now they could serve only half of their sentences after spending a year behind bars if they behave well while locked up.
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 said 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 seeking comment 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.