The hallway outside Department 9 was loud and somewhat circus-like as observers gathered and waited for the doors to open on the first day of the Ghost Ship fire jury trial this week.
Cases like the Ghost Ship attract a lot of attention, largely because there are seldom cases like it, that begin with the deaths of more than 30 people and no known, clear person or entity to blame.
The jury seated for the trial that began Tuesday is not instructed to evaluate the liability of the property owners, the fire department or city official. Their task is to determine innocence or guilt of two different men for 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Derick Almena and Max Harris returned to Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland to plead their cases, for a second time since the fire on December 2, 2016, this time presided over by Judge Trina Thompson.
The first trial resulted in a connected plea deal, where both defendants together had to accept or reject and Judge Jim Cramer had to rule in favor of, or against, the no contest plea deal for both, or neither. Following an intense two days of family impact statements and testimony from each defendant, Cramer “wrestled at length” with the all-or-nothing decision, saying:
“A case like this is like no other we have seen.”
Cramer weighted differences between the two defendants, believing Harris demonstrated remorse “from the outset,” whereas a letter Almena wrote to his probation officer and remarks he made to the press and in the courtroom had the judge less convinced. Cramer reluctantly rejected the deal that would have sentenced Harris to six years in prison and Almena nine with credit for time served, and specifically named Almena as the deciding factor.
“I am expressly rejecting this deal with regard to Mr. Almena, but I do not know that it will help the victims’ families here.”
The next and current round of prosecution against Almena and Harris began Tuesday with a jury of nine women and three men. Again, in front of a packed courtroom of family members, attorneys, media, a judge and now a jury, all three teams showed up to present their best case.
Assistant District Attorney Casey Bates began with his opening statement for the People v. Max Harris and Derick Almena:
“When you go to a show, you have an expectation of seeing a show and leaving that show. … Thirty-five out of 36 people that perished went to a show they paid money for, but they didn’t survive.”
Bates presented a slide for every victim with a photo next to their name and the associated count number. He slowly read each one out loud:
“Count 1, Jason McCarty. Count 2, Donna Kellogg. Count 3, Sara Hoda. … Count 28, Alex Vega. Count 29, Michela Gregory. …”
Bates claimed evidence will show Almena’s blatant disregard for safety in his founding of what was then referred to as the Satya Yuga Collective – later coined the Ghost Ship by locals. He alleges that from October 2013, when Almena deceptively signed the lease with the Ng family as a non-residential space to build theatrical sets, during the building process, and throughout the time he managed what became a live-work space for up to 25 renters, the defendant was dismissive of safety concerns.
The prosecution will bring forward evidence from a man by the name of Rodney Griffin, a licensed contractor Almena first consulted for a bid to transform the space. When Griffin estimated $3,000 for a stairway and $2,000 for a fire door and more for proper electrical work, Bates contends Almena responded:
“We can do it better, cheaper.”
Using an unlicensed contractor instead, Almena pushed ahead with renovations using “unconventional” building materials and defined the space with interesting but combustible items, from floor to ceiling in some places. According to Bates, when Griffin later visited the warehouse, he described it as a “death trap.”
The prosecution aims to show that when Harris moved into the collective in October 2014, he quickly became an integral part of Almena’s operation as the “creative director,” where he collected rent, evicted tenants and promoted shows like the one held there Dec. 2, 2016, in exchange for free board.
Curtis Briggs, defense attorney for Harris, would challenge those points in his opening statement.
Bates went on to detail the timeline for the night of the fire through photos of the space, diagrams depicting a lack of exits and personal accounts given by other residents and partygoers who survived. Recorded 911 calls, text messages from victims to loved ones just as they died and photos of first responders sifting through literal tons of rubble provided the jury and courtroom attendees with powerful imagery.
Bates repeated throughout his statement:
“There was no notice, no time, no exits.”
After lunch recess Tuesday, Briggs stood to address the jury on Harris’ behalf, who he referred to as “Christ-like, Buddhistic,” as a man who was “a giver, not a taker; a servant, not a boss.”
Briggs attempted to paint Harris as a lifelong artist with very little financial resources or care for money much at all. He detailed Harris’ journey of occasional homelessness as he traveled around chasing news places where he could create and collaborate with other artists.
When he arrived in Oakland on a First Friday in 2012, Briggs said:
“He fell in love. … He found a place with people he loved, a community that would love him back. He found a home.”
It would be another two years before Harris joined Almena at the Ghost Ship warehouse, when it was already largely rebuilt and decorated as the space it would be when it burned down during a concert on another First Friday in 2016.
Briggs argued that Harris’ role was nothing more than a janitor, washing dishes and cleaning the one bathroom up to 25 people shared. In response to claims Harris collected rent, Briggs explained that the young artist was someone other residents trusted to make sure money was deposited into the landlord’s account – they feared being evicted and believed Harris would not steal from them.
Briggs continued to speak to Harris’ character as a man who was happy to help and quick to trust but not as a man in charge, that his client was a good person in what became a tragic situation. Still, according to Briggs, Harris did not run from responsibility after the fire – he tried to help people get out until the smoke overwhelmed him, stayed and tried pulling wood away from the exterior as the fire department came, and, in the wake of the tragedy, he immediately volunteered information to authorities.
Briggs then presented a theory that adds a nefarious element to an already devastating story, suggesting the fire was intentionally set and exits blocked, possibly by people who took issue with Almena’s “progression as a man and a father.”
He spoke specifically of the contentious relationship Almena had with Omar Vega, a man who operated an automobile shop next door to the art collective. Briggs claimed several witnesses saw men dressed in dark clothing running from the building just before the fire was noticed.
Briggs hopes the good nature of his client, possibility of arson and additional perceived failures by the city and fire department will help sway the jury to see reasonable doubt as they later deliberate their verdict. If convicted, both Harris and Almena could be sentenced to up to 39 years in prison.
Briggs questioned why Harris is on trial when other people in positions of responsibility are not:
“The people who started the fire are not on trial. … The people who caused this fire are not on trial.”
Court reconvened Wednesday under strange circumstances, as the judge dismissed one juror in what was likely related to an incident where someone inappropriately approached a juror Tuesday. Thompson did not provide further detail on the reason for dismissal.
Tony Serra, lead defense attorney for Almena, was then given the chance to present his opening statement, which had been delayed due to time constraint the previous day. In an effort to soften perceptions of his client, Serra attempted to humanize him by presenting a large picture of Almena with his wife Micah Allison and their daughter, who all lived together at the Ghost Ship but were staying in a hotel the night of the fire.
Serra’s defense theories closely followed Briggs’ from Tuesday’s statement on behalf of Harris. Essentially, he claimed the evidence will show the fire was an act of arson and he too all but named Vega as a viable suspect, although he saved blame for the Ngs and city as well.
Referring to witness claims from inside the first floor of the warehouse that they heard popping sounds and breaking glass and saw people running from the building “at the time the fire started,” Serra theorized the fire could have been intentionally set by someone of several people throwing bottles of gasoline through a window on the ground floor.
Serra said, according to Courthouse News:
“The evidence will show that in order for a fire to rage in the fashion that it did, the inception of the fire has to be something hard.”
“They threw them, they lit them, and they left.”
Thompson ordered the defense to supply the prosecution with witness statements upon which the two teams are basing their allegations. Implications of arson add a new element to a case that has haunted Oakland for more than two years, and it stands to reason that days ahead will be emotionally charged as further testimony is provided.
The trial is set to resume Monday as witnesses take the stand.