Club KidsNewsSan Francisco

Ghost Ship Fire suspects accept their fate; victims’ families seek ways to pay tribute

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By Amanda Davis

Nearly two years after the devastating Ghost Ship Fire in Oakland, the owner and the creative director of the building finally know what their futures hold. It was announced last month that the two suspects, Derick Almena and Max Harris, plead “no contest” and accepted a deal that lightened their load (and their conscience) to a massive extent.

Both men will be formally sentenced August 9 without going to trial. Each will spend as little as six years in custody and four under mandatory supervision, leaving the families of the 36 victims outraged and hurt.

“This is not justice,” said David Gregory, father of 20-year-old victim Michela Gregory. “This has never happened in Oakland before and the DA (District Attorney) missed an opportunity to set a standard here.”

Of the 20 hearings, Gregory was present for all but two and plans to be there for the sentencing as well. He and family members of other victims plan to speak during time allotted for impact statements and they hope the defendants will reflect on what they have done.

By circumventing a trial and possibility of being found guilty, Almena and Harris avoided potential life sentences. They were, however, forced in prior proceedings to listen to the name of each victim be read aloud and face their crying families.

Pictures of the 36 victims who died in the Oakland, Calif. Ghost Ship Fire. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle

“They couldn’t even look us,” Gregory mentioned. “At one point Almena started to apologize but it went back to him being the victim.”

Jesus Peraza, a friend of Michela and boyfriend Alex Vega who also died in the fire, believes that Almena and Harris made it clear “where their morals really stood” by accepting the reduced plea deal. 

“[This] situation is a tough one. Their intention on the night of the fire was clearly not to hurt anyone, however, their negligence to serious hazard concerns was appalling,” Peraza said. “Is [the plea] enough?”

Many say no. The Gregory family and others are angry, hurt and still grieving their losses. To them, a fair conviction is not about revenge, but instead about making sure Almena and Harris understand the deep and painful impact their carelessness caused an entire community.

“It was a slap on the wrist,” Gregory added. “I don’t think they belong in jail for life, but they need time to think. They should have at least 10 years in prison, which is enough time to think about what they did.”

In between memorials and court hearings over the past two years, the families of of Michela and Alex created a place in the Mission District where people could turn to grieve the young victims. In 2016, local Bay Area artist Mel Waters painted a very touching mural of the two on the famous Clarion Alley, including personal details that reflect aspects of the pair only close friends and family would notice.

MEL WATERS, 34, MURALISTS FROM SAN FRANCISCO – WHO LIVES IN PACIFICA, CALIF. – ADDS THE FINISHING TOUCHES TO HIS MURAL OF MICHELA GREGORY, A FORMER SF STATE STUDENT AND HER BOYFRIEND ALEX VEGA ON FRIDAY, FEB. 24, 2017. Photo courtesy of Aaron Levy-Wolins/Golden Gate Xpress

Recently, however, it was noticed that the mural has become increasingly vandalized with vulgar graffiti and gang affiliated art. Waters contacted the Gregory family asking permission to cover the mural with a new non-related piece, leaving loved ones with no place to go to see their smiles and pay respects.  

For this reason, the Gregory family is determined to find a new, more permanent spot for a mural and asks for help from Bay Area artists and art lovers.

Peraza, who visited the mural often to pay respects and say hello, would also like to see a more permanent and protected location where he can remember his friends.

“They meant so much to the community, and I believe they represent the other young adults who are also artists and creators who love to live life filled with appreciation, love and happiness,” Peraza said.

The court may have failed to give victims’ families the justice they hoped for, but people within the community can help at least this one family heal. Michela and Alex were shaped by the Bay Area, by their love of music and art and by their love for others. It seems all-too appropriate that a tribute to the vibrant couple should have a permanent home in the place they loved.

Vigil for victims of Ghost Ship Fire. Photo courtesy of Audrey McNamara/The Daily Californian

If you or someone you know is interested in helping the Gregory family in their mission to create a new mural in a more secure location, please send an email to Amanda Davis so she can put you in contact.

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