Ghost Ship trial begins: Prosecutor says fire victims had no way to escape

Photo by Jim Heaphy

An Alameda County prosecutor told jurors on Tuesday that 36 people died in a fire at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale district on Dec. 2, 2016, because there was no time and no way for them to escape.

In his opening statement in the long-awaited trial of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena, 49, and creative director Max Harris, 29, on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, Assistant District Attorney Casey Bates said the two men violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease by turning it into a living space and hosting underground music parties there.

Bates said the lease with building owner Eva Ng that Almena signed on Nov. 10, 2013, made clear that the 10,000-square-foot space was only to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective and for building theatrical sets. No other use, such as using the building as a living space, was permitted at the space, which Almena called the Satya Yuga Collective, Bates said.

The prosecutor said Almena scoffed at co-leaseholder Nicholas Bouchard when he expressed concern that Almena was violating the terms of the lease. Bates said when a consultant described the building as “a death trap” because it lacked fire alarms, fire extinguishers and other safety measures and was packed with combustible materials, Almena joked that the building should be called “the Satya Yuga death trap.”

Bates alleged that Almena and Harris ordered people who moved into the warehouse to tell others that the building wasn’t being used as a residence and instead was used as an artists’ collective 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “They took steps to hide the fact that they were living in that space,” Bates said, alleging that up to 25 people lived at the building.

Bates also played a videotape of Almena telling an Oakland police officer in January 2015, “Nobody lives here — we build sets here.” Almena and Harris are charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter for each of the 36 fire victims.

Bates began his opening statement in dramatic fashion by showing photos of each of the 36 victims and reading their names aloud one by one, causing many people in the packed courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson to sob. He said all of the victims died of smoke inhalation.

Defense lawyers for Almena and Harris allege that the people most responsible for the fire are the warehouse’s owners and Oakland firefighters and police officers who they say knew about the dangers there and didn’t take action to remedy those dangers. Defense lawyers will present their opening statements after the trial’s lunch break Tuesday afternoon.

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