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Ghost Ship Trial Underway, Highlights Failures of Many

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The second iteration of the Ghost Ship trial is well underway with Wednesday marking the third day of testimony in front of a judge and jury, and a gallery packed with family, friends and media. To this point, the scene inside Department 9 of the Alameda County Superior Court has been every bit as emotional and contentious as one would expect from a case that seeks to lay blame for the deaths of 36 people.

The fire at 1305 31st Street in Oakland on Dec. 2, 2016 was the tragic beginning of what would become years of heart-wrenching legal battles. Two men, Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29, are facing 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for their roles in that night and all that led up to it. If found guilty, each defendant could face up to 39 years in prison.

This is not the first time the case against Almena and Harris has been tried. The two were offered a plea deal in the first trial that had to be accepted or rejected by both men and which ultimately had to be approved by the judge in that proceeding. As we reported at the time, although both men accepted the deal, fate took a surprising turn last August when Judge Jim Cramer reluctantly rejected the plea, citing lack of belief in Almena’s remorse.

Ghost Ship Fire defendants Derick Almena and Max Harris. Photo courtesy of CBS Local

The jury trial that began May 30 is presided over by Judge Trina Thompson, who has thus far shown an incredible amount of patience and awareness of the uniquely sensitive nature of this particular case.

The first two days back in court were dedicated to opening statements prepared by three legal teams: Casey Bates and Autrey James, representing the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office; Curtis Briggs and Tyler Smith, defense attorneys for Max Harris; and Tony Serra, representing Derick Almena.

In those first days, the prosecution relied heavily on arguments they have made throughout the past two years, alleging that Almena and Harris were criminally negligent in reference to safety at the property and that Harris orchestrated the event hosted at the warehouse that night, which attracted up to 75 paying attendees for a concert. The defense continued to point out the responsibility failures of the Ng family, the property owners, the fire department and the city of Oakland. However, they introduced a new argument as well, the possibility of intentional arson, all but naming people from the auto shop next door to the warehouse.

Briggs argued the first day that evidence will show his client, Harris, should not be on trial, given that he did not create the unsafe conditions and that the Ng family and fire department are not being held accountable for their parts in the tragedy. He added; however, that Harris has never run from the responsibility for what happened that night.

“The smoke settled and the magnitude set in – he did not run,” Briggs said. “He’s a servant with a servant’s heart.”

Serra stepped up the next to try and humanize Almena with a photo of his wife, Micah Allison, and their children, but further insinuated the possibility of an arsonist, for which Almena could not have prepared for.

Trying the two very different men who held vastly different roles at the artist collective residence for the same crimes has presented challenges throughout legal proceedings. Almena established the Satya Yuga art collective at the property and lived there with his wife and children – he was present during the lease signing and directed building alterations that would eventually accommodate up to another 25 artists/residents in make-shift units for minimal rent by Oakland’s over inflated standards. Harris arrived after the once empty two-story warehouse had been filled with “everything under the sun,” as described by witness Rodney Griffin and became a “go-between person” who was widely trusted by those who knew and lived with him.

Photos posted on the Oakland Ghost Ship’s web page before the fire showed spaces crowded with flammable materials. (Photo courtesy of Tumblr / Oakland Ghost Ship)

The case against the two men is based not just in what happened on the night of the fire when an First Friday after-party electronic music show was hosted at the Ghost Ship, but it also seeks to address the actions, or inaction, the two men took to ensure safety in the time leading up to that fatal night.

In that vein, the prosecution began calling witnesses to testify that Almena was careless with safety from the outset when he leased the property, with friend Nicholas “Nico” Brouchard, from Eva Ng. Brouchard had lived and worked with Almena in Oakland and at a marijuana grow property in Santa Cruz prior to obtaining the warehouse to be used a place to build theatrical sets, like installations seen at Burning Man. Brouchard testified that he became worried about unpermitted alterations to the building just weeks into the venture and wrote to the Ngs, detailing what was going on there and to ask his name be removed from the lease. He specifically spoke about a 20-by-20-foot hole cut into the second story floor.

Although Brouchard’s testimony bolsters the prosecution’s stance on Almena’s callousness about safety precautions, he also points to the Ng’s knowledge of what was going on in the building they owned.

Several witnesses took the stand through Tuesday, including a forensic pathologist; Elizabeth Mazzola, a former Ghost Ship resident; Ryan O’Keefe, who worked at the show; Griffin, who “evaluated” the property for alterations; a fire department inspection code supervisor; and Carol Cidlik, the mother of one victim who received a final text message from her daughter inside the warehouse that night. The message read:

“I’m going to die now.”

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

Griffin’s testimony presented mixed results. He claims to have voiced his safety concerns from the beginning, when Almena asked him to evaluate the building and provide a cost required to add a stairway where the conveyor belt system was, to add a fire door and to perform electrical work. During his meeting at the property, he testified that he was joined by Almena, Allison, Brouchard and Ng, who was not only aware of Almena’s plans but interactive in that discussion.

Almena rejected the estimate Griffin provided and proceeded to do the work himself. When Griffin returned six months later, he claims he told the man he “once considered a brother” that the warehouse had become a “death trap.” The two parted ways.

Much later, Griffin drove by the property and saw the exterior had been “firebombed.” Worrying about their safety with the threat of arson, he drove to Fire Station No. 13, 0.1 mile away from the warehouse, and spoke with the fire chief. He provided details about the interior and concerns about safety for people inside the building if a fire were to occur. He asked the chief to check it out and do something. Nothing was done.

“The action that I took – I did not feel (the concerns) would be properly addressed,” Griffin said. “They kind of brushed it off – they just said they were aware. I told them there were children – they said they were aware.”

The last witness Tuesday was Cesar Avila, a man who should have been “aware” at the time, given that he supervised fire code inspectors for Oakland until 2017. His first visit to the property was on Dec. 2, 2016. In the wake of the fire, he was asked to research the building designation and ultimately found no files indicating any inspection had ever been performed.

Oakland Fire Department assesses aftermath of Dec. 2, 2016 fatal Ghost Ship fire that claimed 36 lives. Photo courtesy of SFGate

Avila, who is now a deputy fire marshal for Alameda County, returned for cross examination Wednesday.

Testimony appears to be scheduled out for weeks and will surely unearth a great deal of emotion and accusation against many parties as the days proceed. But in the end, it is the jury’s responsibility to determine if and only if Almena and Harris are guilty of involuntary manslaughter. The city is not on trial. The fire department is not on trial. The Ngs are not on trial. But 36 people died and until someone is held accountable, the families and community remain unsettled.

We will provide occasional updates as the trial proceeds.

 

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Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Nik Wojcik - East Bay Editor

Journalist, editor, student, single mom to a pack of wolves, foodie, music lover, resident smart ass, and champion of vulgarity and human kindness.