A woman testified on Monday that she overheard a group of men congratulate themselves on starting the fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland in 2016 blaze that killed 36 people.
Sharon Evans, the second defense witness in the trial of Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris, said she overheard the group of 14 to 19 men talking because they cut in front of her when she went to a taco truck near the warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland’s heavily-Hispanic Fruitvale district late on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.
Evans, 67, said the men wore dark clothes and had hoodies over their faces and “looked like Spaniards,” although they spoke English.
“The men in black were reporting to each other how happy they were about the fire and how out of hand it had gotten,” Evans said.
“They said no one is going to make it out of the building alive and congratulated themselves that no one was going to survive.”
Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each of the 36 people who died of smoke inhalation at a music party at the warehouse.
Prosecutors, who finished presenting their case last week, allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the fire because the people at the party didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.
But defense attorneys allege that the fire was an act of arson that the two defendants couldn’t have prevented.
However, fire investigators who testified as prosecution witnesses said they didn’t find any evidence of arson.
Harris’ lawyers called Evans to the witness stand to try to support their claim that the fire was an act of arson.
Prosecutors tried to block Evans from testifying about what she says she heard the group of men say, arguing that it was inadmissible hearsay.
But Harris’ lawyers argued in court papers that the alleged statements by the group of men were spontaneous declarations and demonstrated their consciousness of guilt and “pride at the idea that they had just successfully committed a heinous crime.”
Evans, who lives in East Oakland and had attended a church service earlier the night of the fire, said she was familiar with the Ghost Ship warehouse because she had attended several parties there on previous occasions.
Evans said she couldn’t believe what the men were saying, testifying:
“I can’t rest at night knowing what I know that these people (the victims) died in a fire the way that they did.”
But Evans said she didn’t tell authorities what she had heard until several weeks after the fire, saying:
“I feared getting involved because I feared for my life” because she thought the men might be gang members.
Even though Evans said she was concerned about what she had heard and described herself as being “extremely nosy,” she claimed under cross-examination by prosecutor Casey Bates that she rarely watched television coverage about the fire, which was heavily publicized.
Evans said she was in a hurry to get food after she left church that night because she’s a diabetic who needs to eat quickly when she’s feeling weak but said she circled the block near the taco truck “at least 20 times” because there was so much commotion in the area after the fire broke out.
Testimony in the lengthy trial will resume on Wednesday after a one-day break.