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Men charged in California warehouse fire face April trial

December 3, 2018

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Two men who face criminal charges for a Northern California warehouse fire that killed 36 people were ordered Monday to stand trial on April 2.

Retired Alameda County judge Vernon Nakahara was also assigned to preside over the trial during the same hearing in Oakland, California.

Derick Almena, 48, and Max Harris, 28, are each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Dec. 5, 2016 fire. A judge earlier scuttled a plea deal between the men and the Alameda County district attorney’s office after several relatives of the victims opposed the proposed prison sentences as too lenient.

Almena had agreed to serve nine years and Harris agree to a six-year term in exchange for no contest pleas to all counts. The two now face a maximum sentence of life in prison if a jury convicts them on all counts.

Prosecutors have said Almena rented the warehouse and illegally converted it into an entertainment venue and living and working quarters for artists. Harris helped collect rent and organize music concerts in a warehouse permitted only to store goods, the prosecutors have said. They allege the two men turned the warehouse with few exits into a death trap of flammable clutter.

Lawyers for the men argue that their clients are being made scapegoats for the affordable housing crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area. The lawyers also argue the landlord and Oakland city officials are to blame for failing to ensure the building met safety codes.

Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra is also seeking to have the case dismissed, alleging authorities destroyed most of the damaged warehouse before it could be closely examined for “accelerants” such as gasoline that could point to arson as the fire’s cause.

Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms investigators said they could not determine the cause of the fire.

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