Ghost Ship Trial: Max Harris acquitted, mistrial declared for Derick Almena

Ghost Ship

OAKLAND (KRON) — Defendant Max Harris was acquitted Thursday on all counts in the Oakland Ghost Ship Trial, while jurors were deadlocked on a verdict for the second defendant Derick Almena.

The two men were accused in the deadly warehouse fire in Oakland that killed 36 people in December of 2016.

The jury was deadlocked 10-2, with the majority favoring a guilty verdict for Almena, causing a mistrial.

Almena will return to Alameda County Superior Court on Oct. 4.

Harris was released from jail Thursday night.

Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, were each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter — one for each person killed in the warehouse fire. 

The trial began in April.

Thursday’s announcement marks an end to the months-long trial.

Night of the Fire

The fire began on the night of Dec. 2, 2016 around 11:30 p.m. at a 10,000-square-foot warehouse located at 1305 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. 

The building, known as the “Ghost Ship,” was a space for musicians and artists. 

Roughly 200 people were believed to be gathered inside the warehouse for an electronic music party on the night of the fire. 

When the fire broke out, dozens were evacuated and missing, with nine confirmed dead by the next morning. 

It took five hours for 52 firefighters to put out the fire.

The death toll continued to rise in the days following, and by Dec. 5, 2016, 36 people were confirmed dead. 

The fire remains the deadliest fire in Oakland’s history and deadliest mass-casualty incident since the Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989.  

Leading up to the Fire

The warehouse had been a source of complaints for years because of dangerous conditions, drug use and theft, according to the Associated Press, with city inspectors showing up at the Ghost Ship warehouse just weeks before the deadly fire. 

Shortly after the fire, a neighbor called the warehouse “an accident waiting to happen,” saying the fire could’ve been prevented. 

In the weeks before the fire, city inspectors had received complaints about the warehouse being illegally converted into residences. 

That prompted the city to send a violation notice to the warehouse.  

That same month, city inspectors sent a second violation notice for an “illegal interior building structure,” according to city records. 

The city then opened an investigation into the building — but just a few weeks later, it was too late. 

In the days after the fire, Oakland’s interim building chief said an inspector went to the warehouse on Nov. 17, 2016 — but was unable to enter the building or speak with occupants. 

After the fire, Almena said authorities had been in and out of the building for years because of complaints and thefts. 

Oakland City Councilman Noel Gallo also said at the time that the warehouse had caused problems in his district for years

Shortly after the fire, he encouraged law enforcement and fire officials to “be more aggressive” in making sure property owners are held responsible.

Arrests

More than six months after the devastating fire tore through the Ghost Ship, Almena and Harris were charged by the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said in June 2017 the men “knowingly created a fire trap.”

After charges were filed against Harris and Almena, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff said,

“The reckless and deceptive actions of Derick Almena and Max Harris claimed 36 innocent lives. For years, they worked hard to escape legal scrutiny and deceive City officials. Because of their callous disregard for human life, they deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

Almena was booked into county jail on June 8, 2017 and has remained in custody since, jail records show.

Both Harris and Almena were held on $750,000 bail. 

Trial Begins

Prosecutors and defense attorneys began arguing their case in front of an Alameda County jury on April 30.

Prosecutor Casey Bates began her opening statement by reading the names of the 36 victims.

Bates said the victims died because there was no notice, time or exits on the night of the fire, reiterating both Almena and Harris were criminally responsible.

The jury deciding Harris’ and Almena’s fate was picked from a group of 480 prospective jurors.

About one month into the trial, defense attorneys for Harris and Almena claimed the fire was caused by arson — not by a Molotov cocktail but instead, an arsonist.

A former official with the Oakland Fire Department, Maria Sabatini, shot down the claim that the fire was started by some type of explosive or Molotov cocktail.

That’s when attorney Curtis Briggs claimed an arsonist was to blame for the destructive fire.

“That’s what we are trying to prove is that this fire didn’t start in an electrical outlet. It didn’t start in a computer or a refrigerator,” Briggs said. “This was an intentionally set fire.”

A report by the Oakland Fire Department concluded,

“Criminal activity was considered as a possible cause of the fire. The scene investigation did not reveal any indications of an intentionally set fire. Interviews did not reveal any motives for an intentionally set fire. First floor occupants near the area of origin prior to the discovery of the fire reported that there were no unauthorized persons in that area. However, the introduction of an open flame, either intentionally or carelessly, cannot be eliminated.”

The fire’s cause and origin remains undetermined.

Max Harris’ Testimony

In June, 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 party goers 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.

Derick Almena’s Testimony

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 believe the warehouse was safe, saying he lived in the building with his wife and three kids.

In the weeks prior, 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.

“And that’s something we have been explaining all along that is the basis for acquittal of Max Harris,” said attorney Briggs.

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