Ghost Ship Fire: Highlights from the trial

Ghost Ship

OAKLAND (KRON) — The jury has decided the fate of the two men accused in the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire.

Derick Almena, 49 and Max Harris, 29, are each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection to the three dozen partygoers who perished in the Dec. 2, 2016 fire.  

The pair could serve up to 36 years in prison if convicted. 

The trial began at the end of April, and now more than four months later, Almena and Harris will learn their fate.

During the months-long trial, a 12-person jury and judge heard from family members of victims, Oakland fire and city officials, Ghost Ship residents and Harris and Almena themselves. 

The testimony was emotional, and at times combative, as the defense and prosecution worked to sway jurors toward their respective conclusions. 

“No notice, time, or exits”

Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Casey Bates began the prosecution’s opening statement by reading the names of the 36 fire victims. 

As the three dozen names were read, family members listened, shedding tears over the lives lost in the fire.

Those inside the Ghost Ship on the night of Dec. 2, 2016 had “no notice, time or exits” — and that’s what made the fire so devastating, Bates said on the first day of the trial. 

Opening Statements Lay Trial Foundation

Prosecutors laid the foundation for the trial during their opening statement, alleging Harris and Almena stuffed the warehouse with flammable furniture, art and a makeshift electrical system that made it difficult for victims to escape. 

The prosecution alleges Harris and Almena are criminally negligent because of the hazardous condition of the warehouse. 

Almena is accused of illegally converting the Ghost Ship into an artist work space, where Oakland’s creative community lived and worked.

In an interview with KRON4 shortly after the fire, Almena said his lease at the warehouse allowed him to build rooms inside the Ghost Ship. 

The prosecution alleges otherwise. 

In a jailhouse interview, Almena said he felt morally responsible for the deadly fire and wished he had been there to save people. 

The cause of the deadly fire remains unknown — something Harris’ and Almena’s defense attorneys said at the start of the trial would be a central piece in their defense. 

Another aspect of the defense’s strategy was the claim the Ghost Ship fire was started by arson. 

“We very strongly believe this is arson fire,” said Tony Serra, Almena’s attorney.

Harris’ attorney agrees, saying at least 10 people participated in the arson.

Victim’s Final Moments

“I’m gonna to die now.”

The mother of a woman who died in the fire was the first to take the witness stand on behalf of the prosecution. 

She read the jury a text message her daughter sent her while the fire burned inside the Ghost Ship, foreshadowing her death. 

“They wanted her up there so that everyone feels her pain, her suffering. It casts an emotional shadow on the case from the inception,” said Tony Serra, Almena’s attorney. 

Weeks into the trial, jurors also heard 911 calls made from inside the warehouse during the fire, something that brought tears to those inside the courtroom, including the defendants. 

“It was chilling. It was heartbreaking. It was frustrating. It was very difficult for Max to hear,” said Harris’ attorney, Tyler Smith.  

Another defense attorney for Harris, Curtis Briggs, said the 911 calls and text messages were only signs of a tragedy, but not of a crime. 

“The prosecution wants to bring them in because they want to build up the emotion involved because that is an advantage that they have and they want to exploit,” Briggs said.

Jurors also heard from witness Samuel Maxwell, who survived the deadly fire. 

He took the stand in his wheelchair. 

The fire left him with permanent brain damage and burns on his body. 

He told the court how was trapped on stairs inside the Ghost Ship as the fire closed in on him.

Testimony Discredits Arson Claim

Taking aim at the defense’s argument that the fire was started by arson, prosecutors called to the stand fire investigator Barbara Maxwell, who’s certified with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. 

Once on the stand, prosecutors questioned the investigator on whether anyone saw a possible arsonist at the scene of the fire on Dec. 2, 2016 or whether there were signs of an explosion caused by a Molotov cocktail. 

Maxwell disproved both theories in her testimony — reiterating there were no signs of an explosive device or arsonist near the scene. 

Former Oakland fire investigator Maria Sabatini agreed

She told the court she did not find any evidence of an explosive, but reiterated the fire’s cause remains unknown. 

Fire’s Cause

The cause of the warehouse fire remains undetermined — a central piece in the defense’s strategy. 

Attorneys focused blame on Sabatini, specifically her testimony about the fire’s origin and lack of cause.

“She can’t rule arson and she can’t rule out molotov cocktails, so that gives us an opportunity to find reasonable doubt in that very testimony,” Serra later said.

Defense Takes Aim at Prosecution Witness

Nearly two months into the Ghost Ship Warehouse Trial, the first witnesses for the defense took the stand. 

A childhood friend of Almena, a former Ghost Ship resident and an unlicensed contractor who worked at the warehouse each testified to the defendants’ innocence. 

The three witnesses described taking a tour with Oakland firefighters in September 2014 — years before the deadly fire. 

“Not only did they go in, they took a tour and on one occasion they were dancing,” Almena’s attorney said.

Despite defense attorneys’ claim of arson and fire investigators’ testimony discrediting it, Briggs took aim at investigators’ method. 

After the fire investigators finished collecting evidence at the fire, the scene was turned over to insurance investigators representing the owner of the Ghost Ship. 

Briggs questioned that procedure. 

“It is very unusual for a prosecution team to turn over a crime scene and evidence to somebody who is potentially at fault and the owner is potentially at fault here,” Briggs said on May 31.

Witness Saw Group Talking About Starting Fire

Supporting the defense theory of arson, witness Sharon Evans alleged seeing a dozen men near the warehouse, laughing about setting the Ghost Ship fire on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.

She claimed the men said everyone was going to burn and no one would get out of the warehouse alive that night. 

Despite the compelling claims, the judge ruled the witness testimony as hearsay evidence — which prevented the jury from hearing part of her testimony. 

Instead, the prosecution later played a portion of a previous interview with an Evans and an investigator, which gave the defense what they needed. 

Victims’ Families Question Witness Credibility

Prior to the judge’s hearsay ruling, family members of victims doubted Evans credibility.

“I think she lacks credibility,” said David Gregory, the father of Michela Gregory, who was killed in the fire. “She’s basically if that’s the best they can do, they’re just desperate to put her up. I hope they do put her up. I actually hope they do put her on the stand and ask her some tough questions.”

Another family member wasn’t concerned how the fire started — only saying it could have been prevented, but wasn’t. 

Witness: “I Wasn’t Concerned About Fire”

Another key to the Almena and Harris’ defense was former Ghost Ship tenant Carmen Brito, who survived the fire. 

She told the court the Ghost Ship was the most beautiful place she’d ever lived and that she never imagined the fire would be so terrible.

She testified to the warehouse’s safety, saying she felt safe because of the proximity of the Oakland fire and police departments. 

The Ghost Ship was just one block away from a fire station.

Outside of court, Brito reiterated what she said directly after the fire. 

“There’s blame to go around, inspections weren’t done,” she said 

Almena Breaks Down on Stand

Almena took the stand on July 8 and struggled to spell his own name while wiping away tears.

“[I’m] tired, brokenhearted, I’m just so sad,” Almena told the court. “I built something, I dreamed something, I attracted beautiful people to my space.”

Almena reiterated to the court that he believed the warehouse was safe, saying he lived in the building with his wife and three kids.

In the weeks prior to his testimony, Almena’s wife, Micah Allison, testified, saying she and Almena were not at the Ghost Ship prior to the fire.

During her testimony, Almena’s attorney worked to shift blame to the fire department and its lack of action.

Allison also said Harris had nothing to do with the buildout of the warehouse because he moved in after.

Harris on Witness Stand: I Lied to Police

More than month into the trial, Harris took the witness stand and told the court Almena was his friend, roommate and mentor.

“He’s been in custody for two years, waiting to tell his story, waiting to tell the truth,” Attorney Smith said.

On the stand, Harris told the court he lied to police once when asked whether people lived at the Oakland warehouse, saying he didn’t want residents to become homeless because of him.

He also referred to himself as the creative director of the warehouse — but emphasized his responsibilities were informal and the title did not put him in a position of authority. 

When asked why he gave himself that title, he admitted he wanted “to sound more official.”

On the night of Dec. 2, 2016, Harris said he was stamping hands as partygoers entered the warehouse.

About two and a half hours later, he said he saw a glow from the warehouse and tried to grab a fire extinguisher, but realized the fire was too large to handle.

He said he guided people out of the building and saw 10 people come out of the structure after him, but said “eventually, people stopped coming out.” 

He told the court he did the best he could, but that he felt responsible because it was his house.

Family members of fire victims weren’t impressed by Harris’ testimony. 

“He lies constantly. I think the worse thing he could have done for his own case is open his mouth. Any sympathy that the family might have had before, that’s gone now,” said Grace Lovio, whose partner died in the fire. 

Another relative of a victim believes Harris isn’t a killer, but says he needs to take responsibility. 

“I don’t hate him. I know he’s not a killer. I know he didn’t want any of this to happen. It’s not too hard for me looking at him, but he has to be held accountable for his negligence,” said Alberto Vega, whose brother was killed in the warehouse.

Defense and Prosecution Rest

After three months of questioning and testimony, attorneys for the prosecution and Almena and Harris’ defense rested their case, making way for closing statements and the jury’s deliberation. 

Family members of victims said they were satisfied with the prosecution’s efforts in the case. 

“In my opinion,  they presented a case that is strong enough to be won,” said Michela Gregory’s father said. “I just hope that the jury will pay attention to all the lies that were told during this trial because that’s what it boils down to.”

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