Ghost Ship prosecutors try to contradict Almena and Harris

Prosecutors presented three witnesses on Monday who contradicted testimony by Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena, creative director Max Harris and other defense witnesses in their trial for a fire at the Oakland building that killed 36 people in 2016. The witnesses who took the stand were among the last in the lengthy trial, which began April 30, and testimony is expected to conclude on Tuesday.

Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the blaze during a music party at the 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district the night of Dec. 2, 2016. Alameda County prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the fire because the people at the party didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs. Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the building’s lease, which only called for it to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.

Darold Leite, a friend of Almena who’s a two-time felon and lived at the warehouse, testified last week that he heard what sounded like an argument and bottles being broken shortly before the deadly blaze. Leite also said he told the people who appeared to be arguing to “knock it off” and that said he saw seven or eight people in dark clothes who he didn’t recognize rush out a side door after the apparent argument. Leite’s testimony supports the defense’s contention that the fire was an act of arson that Almena and Harris couldn’t have prevented.

But federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent Whitney Hameth testified on Monday that when she interviewed Leite on two occasions shortly after the fire he didn’t tell her that he heard the sound of broken bottles, heard a fight or saw a group of people wearing dark clothes go out a side door. Hameth also said that although Leite testified that he’s a friend of Almena, he claimed he didn’t know Almena’s last name when she interviewed him.

When Almena was on the witness stand last week he accused former Oakland Acting Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini of lying when she testified in May that she didn’t go inside the warehouse when she investigated an arson fire on a couch on the sidewalk outside the warehouse on Sept. 26, 2014. Almena’s testimony supports the defense’s allegation that 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.

But Oakland police Officer Michael Erickson testified on Monday that when he went to the warehouse shortly after the arson fire in 2014 he didn’t go inside the building because there didn’t appear to be any reason to enter the structure since it appeared that all the damage was on the outside. Erickson said when he talked to Almena outside the warehouse Almena said Sabatini had already been there and left him her business card. Harris testified in June that after the fire broke out on Dec. 2, 2016, he ran back to his living space to grab his cellphone. Harris also said he tried calling 911 to report the fire. But Alameda County District Attorney Inspector Paul Baulzouman testified on Tuesday that when he interviewed Harris shortly after he was arrested on June 5, 2017, he didn’t say anything about going back to his space to get his phone. Baulzouman also said he didn’t find any indication that Harris ever called 911 to report the blaze.

Prosecutors will present two more rebuttal witnesses when the trial resumes on Tuesday and then there will be a long break until closing arguments are presented the week of July 29. Jury deliberations are expected to begin on Aug. 5.

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