Ghost Ship trial: Prosecutor recounts dramatic escapes, farewells

Bay Area

A prosecutor opened the trial for two men facing charges after a deadly fire killed 36 people in an illegally converted Oakland warehouse by reading the name of each victim.

The opening by prosecutor Casey Bates left many victims’ relatives in tears Tuesday morning. 

Alameda County prosecutors say Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29, are criminally responsible for the fire in December 2016. 

Each face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths.

Bates told the jury that the victims had no notice that a fire had started and perished quickly because of a lack of exits at the dilapidated warehouse the two had converted to a live-work space.

He says they all died because there was “no notice, time or exits.”

An Alameda County jury of nine women and three men was picked from a pool of 480 prospective jurors and sworn in Monday. 

Prosecutors claim guests and residents at the warehouse were endangered by its makeshift electrical system and floor-to-ceiling load of pianos, wooden sculptures, and pallets. 

Prosecutors also say the warehouse had no city permits for residency or for the concerts held there.

Almena rented the building, which was permitted only to store industrial and commercial products.

Instead, Almena converted the dilapidated building into a series of bedrooms, places to park campers and concert rooms.

Prosecutors say the pair crammed the warehouse with highly flammable furniture, art pieces and other knick-knacks that made it difficult for new visitors to quickly find exits during the fast-moving Dec. 2, 2016 fire.

The cause of the fire has never been determined, which the men’s attorneys have said will be a central argument of their defense.

It’s the second time the case has neared resolution. Almena and Harris each pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter last summer as part of a plea bargain, but a judge in August scuttled the deals after families of victims objected to the sentences as too light. Almena agreed to admit responsibility in exchange for a nine-year prison sentence and Harris agreed to a six-year term.

Judge James Cramer said he rejected the plea deal because he felt Almena did not show remorse. Because the Alameda County district attorney’s office insisted the plea bargains were a package deal, Cramer reluctantly rejected Harris’ agreement as well, though the judge said he felt he was remorseful.

The men face up to 36 years each in prison if convicted on all counts.

In the current case, the judge has issued a gag order that prevents attorneys from discussing the case publicly. Before the order was imposed, Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra, said he will argue that the fire could have been started by an arsonist or had other causes unrelated to the men’s management of the property.

Harris’ attorney, Curtis Briggs, said before the gag order was issued that he planned to argue that others such as the city of Oakland and its fire department, as well as the warehouse’s landlord, share the blame for the fire. City codes require commercial buildings to be inspected annually, but the Oakland Fire Department and city officials said they could find no records of building inspectors examining the building.

Warehouse owner Chor Ng, who has never been charged, is also being sued for negligence in the lawsuits by the families. She and her attorney, Stephen Dreher, did not return email and phone messages seeking comment.

The men have also been named in lawsuits that victims’ families have filed alleging that the Oakland Fire Department and Building Department failed to inspect the warehouse annually as required. The lawsuit says inspectors would have discovered the illegal conversions.

Alex Katz, a spokesman for the Oakland city attorney, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

The lawsuits claim electrical provider Pacific Gas & Electric also 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 record found no electrical problems at the warehouse in the 10 years before the fire.

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