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Ghost Ship prosecution gives closing statement to packed courtroom, overflow

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Jim Heaphy, Cullen328 on Wikimedia Commons
Site of the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, Calif. Thirty-six people were killed in a fire that erupted at the Fruitvale District artist collective warehouse during a live music show on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.

An Alameda County prosecutor told jurors Monday that criminal negligence on the part of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris was a substantial factor in the deaths of 36 people at a music party at the Oakland building in 2016.

In his closing argument in the trial of Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the blaze at the warehouse late on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, prosecutor Autrey James said a reasonable person would have known that their actions created a significant safety risk at the 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.

The people who came to the party on the building’s second floor had almost no time to get out alive after the fire broke out because the structure lacked important safeguards such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms, lighted exit signs and stairs that were in good condition, James said. He alleged that Almena started violating the terms of the building’s lease almost immediately after he signed it on Nov. 10, 2013, by allowing people to live there even though it was zoned for commercial use, not residential use.

James said Almena never told the building’s owners that he planned to have people live there and planned to have large music parties there. The prosecutor also said multiple witnesses testified at the trial that they told Almena he needed to get permits for the work he was doing to change the building but he failed to do so.

James alleged that the reason Almena didn’t try to obtain permits is that he knew that he knew if he did so, that would cause building inspectors and fire inspectors to visit the building and Almena feared they would shut down his business and end his livelihood.

James said that when Almena testified during the trial:

“[H]e admitted that he made a living off the people who came into that building.”

Defense attorneys allege the fire was an act of arson that Almena and Harris couldn’t have prevented, as a defense witness testified that she overheard a group of 14-19 men congratulate themselves on starting the fire at the warehouse, which served as an artists’ collective. Defense lawyers also say firefighters, police officers and other authorities who visited the building before the deadly fire in 2016 never told Almena and Harris that they thought it was unsafe or told them to make changes to bring it up to code.

The courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson is packed for closing arguments, which are expected to take up to three days, and an additional 30 people are listening to audio of the arguments in an overflow room.

Defense lawyers won’t begin presenting their arguments until late Monday or Tuesday morning. Thompson said jury deliberations won’t begin until next week.

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