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Max Harris testifies he feared homelessness when lying to police before fire

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Ghost Ship warehouse creative director Max Harris said Monday that he lied to a police officer by claiming that no one lived at the 10,000-square-foot building in Oakland because he feared he would be kicked out of his living space there and become homeless.

Taking the witness stand in his own defense during his trial on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for a fire at a warehouse music party in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, that killed 36 people, Harris said:

“I didn’t know that officer and I didn’t know what his intentions were.”

Recalling when the officer questioned him several months before the blaze, the 29-year-old defendant, said:

“I didn’t want to initiate a string of events to become homeless again.”

Alameda County prosecutors allege that Harris and Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 49, who faces the same charges, 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 safeguards such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs. Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse lease by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.

But defense attorneys allege the fire was an act of arson the two defendants couldn’t have prevented.

Harris estimated that nine to 12 people were living at the warehouse, which functioned as an artists’ collective, when he moved there in late 2013 after he responded to an ad on Craigslist, but said the number fluctuated.

In spending nearly an entire day on the witness stand, Harris only spent a few minutes talking about the fire and spent most of his time talking about his background and trying to minimize his role in running the warehouse and organizing the party at which the fire occurred.

Harris said he became known as the warehouse’s “creative director” only because Almena made up that title on the spur of the moment when they met with people who wanted them to do some work for them.

Harris said “absolutely nothing changed” for him after Almena gave him that title.

Describing the warehouse, Harris said it was:

“[A] very autonomous place where everyone brought their insights and contributions to the table.”

Harris also said:

“There was a shared understanding about what was appropriate behavior and conduct.”

However, Harris said he arranged to live at the warehouse rent-free in exchange for doing work there and said he collected rent from other tenants and gave it to the building’s owners.

Harris said the music party on Dec. 2, 2016, was organized by promoter Jon Hrabko but he said he helped out that night by sitting at the front door and stamping the hands of the 80 to 90 people he estimated attended the event.

Harris said he first saw the fire when he left his post to use the bathroom and saw a glow that he soon determined was a blaze. Harris testified he ran to his room at the warehouse and grabbed his fire extinguisher but not much water came out and he said:

“[I]t became apparent that the extinguisher was not going to put that fire out.”

Harris said he repeatedly yelled:

“Fire, fire, get out.”

He continued, saying he left the building after:

“[A] voice in my head or chest said, “Get out!'”

According to Harris, he witnessed at least 10 people make it out of the warehouse alive but he said:

“[A]t some point, people stopped coming out.”

Harris will continue testifying on Tuesday.

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