Two men facing 36 involuntary manslaughter charges for the 2016 fire at Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse should soon learn their fates, as a jury continues deliberations Thursday following a monthslong trial.
Prosecutors allege the warehouse’s leaseholder, Derick Almena, and Max Harris, who helped collect rent and acted as creative director for the art collective housed at the 10,000-square-foot facility, are responsible for the deaths resulting from the blaze.
It is one of the deadliest nightclub fires in US history and the deadliest American nightclub fire since The Station in West Warwick, Rhode Island, erupted in flames in 2003.
Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, allowed more than two dozen people to live in the dilapidated building, stacked large quantities of flammable materials from floor to ceiling and deceived officials and building owners, prosecutors said in announcing the charges two years ago.
They also held music parties there. The fire came during one such event — an electronic dance party on December 2, 2016. Three dozen people died because they could not escape the building. One of the warehouse’s exits had been blocked, and the building was missing important safety features, such as fire alarms, marked exits and sprinklers, according to authorities.
The defendants’ attorneys have countered that arsonists set the fire, which their clients could not have prevented, and they presented a witness who testified she heard a group of between 14 and 19 men congratulating themselves on starting the blaze, CNN affiliate KPIX reported.
Plea deal tossed
Last year, Almena and Harris pleaded no contest to 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and Alameda County assistant district attorney Teresa Drenick said the men would avoid trial and face sentencing in August 2018. Almena was expected to get nine years in prison, Harris six.
One of Almena’s attorneys, Tony Serra, told reporters that the plea “was an act of ethics and morality” rather than a raw admission of guilt.
“This was not a plea entered into because of legal necessity. We had from my perspective and from many lawyers’ perspectives, we had viable defenses,” Serra said, according to CNN affiliate KGO. “This is a plea that’s been entered into as a moral imperative to eliminate all the trauma and pain and suffering that everyone who touches this case endures.”
Previously, Almena had told an NBC morning show that he was “incredibly sorry,” while his attorneys had said the charges were a miscarriage of justice and an “attempt to make a scapegoat out of our client.”
Before the men could be sentenced, however, Judge James Cramer nixed the deal after deciding that Almena had not shown sufficient remorse for his role in the fire, according to CNN affiliate KRON.
Defense lawyers tried to convince Cramer to reinstate it, but the judge — who made his decision after hearing two days of testimony from grieving families — would not budge, the station reported.
At least one family member had expressed disappointment with the deal, saying that while victims’ loved ones wanted to hear the men concede culpability, the proposed sentences felt insufficient.
“We just wanted some justice, just not to be two years or four years with time served,” said David Gregory, who lost his daughter, Michela, in the fire. “We don’t feel that, in our opinion, that was fair justice.”
Now, Almena and Harris face up to 39 years in prison if the nine-woman, three-man jury finds them guilty on all counts. Their trial began in May, closing arguments were delivered over more than two days this week and the jury began deliberating Wednesday.
The men also face civil lawsuits.
‘Condemned for life’
Alameda County District Attorney Autrey James seized on the scuttled plea deal in his closing arguments this week, telling jurors that Almena began breaking laws and violating building and fire codes shortly after signing the lease for the warehouse in 2013, KGO reported.
He also accused Almena of repeatedly lying about people living in Ghost Ship, according to the station, and said the the defense assertion that arsonists set the fire was baseless. The prosecutor further called the warehouse a “deathtrap,” echoing wording used in civil lawsuits filed by victims’ family members.
“(Almena) was indifferent to the consequences of his actions. It is not a defense that the defendant did not know that he was breaking the law,” he said.
But Serra called James’ closing argument an “emotional tirade,” while Harris’ attorney, Tyler Smith, said his client’s lack of knowledge regarding the codes was key to determining his culpability, KRON reported.
“It is relevant that they weren’t trained to understand what the fire code dictated,” Smith said.
The lawyers also claimed that police, firefighters and other officials visited the building prior to December 2016 and never told Almena nor Harris that there were unsafe conditions or code violations, according to KPIX.
After beginning deliberations, jurors asked two questions: They wanted to know if the words leaseholder, occupant, property manager and tenant were synonymous (Judge Trina Thompson said they were not), and they also requested the definition of “authorized person” (Thompson said she would consult local and state fire codes and get back to them), KPIX reported.
Outside the courthouse, the station said, Ivanna Chavarria, who lost her son Chase, told reporters of the “extreme pain” loved ones are suffering.
“We are condemned for life with the loss of wonderful people,” she said.