Firefighters work to clear debris at the site of the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland where 36 people died in a fire in 2016.

Elijah Nouvelage/ Getty Images

Jurors Begin Deciding Fate Of Ghost Ship Tenants

KCBS Radio Afternoon News
July 31, 2019 - 3:00 pm

After a three-month trial, the jury in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire moved into deliberations Wednesday.

Jurors will decide if master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris are each guilty of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the fire that killed 36 people.

The 10,000 square foot warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood had served as an artists’ collective for years when residents threw a party and concert on the night of Dec. 2, 2016. A fire quickly enveloped the building, trapping dozens of people inside.

In his closing argument Wednesday morning, Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James said Almena and Harris were indifferent to the consequences of their actions, which created unsafe conditions at the warehouse.

James said Almena started violating the terms of the building's lease almost immediately after he signed it on Nov. 10, 2013, by allowing up to 25 people to live there even though it was not zoned for residential use.

Related: 'I'm Just So Sad,' Almena Testifies About Ghost Ship Fire

Defense attorneys have argued that city officials, firefighters, police officers and Child Protective Services officials visited the warehouse on multiple occasions and were aware of the dangers, but failed to inform Almena and Harris that it was unsafe or take other steps to bring it up to code.

James rebutted, saying "None of the people they pointed the finger at invited people to live there and none of them invited people to parties."

The defense says Almena and Harris thought the warehouse was safe, and argued that there is evidence that the fire was an act of arson that the two men would not have been able to prevent.

Attorneys cited a witness who testified that she overheard a group of 14 to 19 men congratulate themselves on starting the fire at the warehouse, and say other witnesses supported the idea that the blaze may have been started by a Molotov cocktail.

But James says the witness who overheard this conversation is unreliable and other details of her testimony do not add up. He pointed out that the witness said the fire started at about 9:45 p.m., when it actually started more than an hour and a half later. He also argued that she could not have circled the block 20 times without seeing anyone outside the building, as fire trucks would have blocked her path and numerous other witnesses said they saw many people run out of the warehouse and gather outside.

"You have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to believe she was a credible witness,” said James. “You're doing too much work."

Almena and Harris each face a maximum sentence of 39 years in state prison.