California trial opens following warehouse fire that killed 36
San Francisco – Two men charged in a fire that killed 36 concertgoers at a Northern California warehouse more than two years ago went on trial Tuesday after a judge rejected their plea agreement.
Derick Almena and Max Harris have been in jail since they were charged with involuntary manslaughter in June 2017, six months after people at an electronic music show struggled to escape the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland.
Prosecutor Casey Bates started the trial Tuesday by reading the name of each victim while family members quietly cried and held one another in the gallery. He said the victims had “no notice” that a fire had started and they perished quickly because of a lack of exits.
“They all died because there was no notice, time or exits,” Bates told the jury.
Almena, 49, is charged with illegally converting the industrial building into an unlicensed entertainment venue and artist live-work space, while Harris, 29, collected rent and scheduled concerts.
Prosecutors say the pair crammed the warehouse with highly flammable furniture, art pieces and other knickknacks that made it difficult for new visitors to quickly find exits during the fast-moving fire on Dec. 2, 2016.
The cause of the blaze has never been determined, which the men’s attorneys have said will be a central argument of their defense.
The trial comes after Almena and Harris each pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter last summer, but a judge scuttled the plea deal after victims’ families objected to the sentences as too lenient. Almena agreed to take responsibility in exchange for a nine-year sentence, and Harris agreed to a six-year term.
Judge James Cramer said he rejected the deal because he felt Almena did not show remorse. Prosecutors insisted the plea bargains were a package deal, so Cramer reluctantly rejected Harris’ agreement as well, though the judge said he felt Harris was remorseful.
The men face up to 36 years each if convicted on all counts.
The judge has issued an order that prevents attorneys from discussing the case publicly. Before the order, Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra, said he would argue that the fire could have been started by an arsonist or had other causes unrelated to the men’s management of the property.
Harris’ attorney, Curtis Briggs, said before the order that he planned to argue that others share blame for the fire, including the city of Oakland, its fire department and the warehouse’s landlord.
City codes require commercial buildings to be inspected annually, but the fire department and city officials said they found no records of inspectors checking the building.
Almena and Harris also have been named in lawsuits from victims’ families alleging that Oakland’s fire and building departments failed to inspect the warehouse annually as required. The lawsuits say inspectors would have discovered the illegal conversions.
Alex Katz, a spokesman for the city attorney, declined to comment, citing the litigation.
Warehouse owner Chor Ng, who has never been charged, also faces negligence lawsuits from the families. She and her attorney, Stephen Dreher, did not return email and phone messages seeking comment.
The lawsuits also claim Pacific Gas & Electric failed to properly monitor, inspect and repair electrical equipment providing power to the warehouse. PG&E said in a statement that it cooperated with the investigation and that a review of its record found no electrical problems at the warehouse in the 10 years before the fire.