The second man arrested and charged in connection with the Ghost Ship fire on Monday after master tenant Derick Ion Almena was a name that had not been mentioned often in the media surrounding the tragedy. Max Ohr, 27, whose real name is Max Harris, was arrested in Los Angeles County and will be returning to Oakland to face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter alongside Almena in an arraignment in the coming days or weeks. And now details are emerging from the District Attorney's Office investigation as to why Harris is being held equally responsible for the 36 fire deaths as Almena.
As we knew from the morning of December 3 when the names of the dead and missing began to be tallied, Almena was not present at the warehouse the night of the electronic music showcase when the fire broke out. Possibly as a condition of their ongoing custody of their children, Almena and wife Micah Allison took their three kids to a hotel room that night they briefly lost custody of them to Allison's parents the previous year for unclear reasons, but allowing them to be present for late-night parties in the Ghost Ship space was obviously no longer a good idea.
As CBS 5 now reports, Max Ohr "described himself as Almena’s second-in-command and said he would collect rent when Almena was away," and it was Harris who was serving as doorman and ersatz event producer the night of the fire. Harris is alleged to have rented the upstairs space to the record label hosting the party that night, and according to the DA's charging documents, "Harris prepared the warehouse for the event that day. [And] In the course of his preparation, Harris blocked off an area of the second floor that included a second stairwell, which effectively reduced the upstairs guests to a single point of escape." That single point was the much talked about makeshift staircase made out of wood pallets.
Harris was mentioned in some early accounts from survivors of the fire and identified as a hero of sorts, attempting to rush in with fire extinguishers, and standing by the front door yelling "The door is this way" as survivors crawled through the interior labyrinth filled with dark smoke. "It chased people to the door," Harris said at the time to the East Bay Times. "It was terrifying. It was the most hellish thing I've ever seen... After two minutes, no one else came out."
As the East Bay Times reports, Harris was considered by Almena to be his "creative director," who not only collected rent but also mediated disputes among tenants and acted as intermediary with the landlord, Chor Ng, and her children who managed the property. He also allegedly aided Almena in making various unpermitted alterations two the building structure.
The exact cause of the fire, as Deputy District Attorney Teresa Drenick said at Monday's press conference, is expected to remain as "undetermined" due to the incineration of most of the evidence, however investigators have pointed to electrical wires that were bringing power into the building from an adjacent building, where a small transformer caught fire in a crawl space about one year prior. Previous tenants complained of the smell of burning wires and of frequent sparks and hazards from the makeshift wiring something the landlords allegedly were aware of because they split the utility bill between the warehouse and the auto body shop next door.
The East Bay Times spoke to a couple of law experts who endorsed Alameda County DA Nancy O'Malley's decision to prosecute the tenants and not the landlord at least for now.
Stanford Law professor Robert Weisberg says O'Malley could have even sought second-degree murder, but that these charges against Almena and Harris were "inevitable." As for others potentially liable, like the landlord, Weisberg tells the East Bay Times, "One might infer that some peripheral actors are getting a chance to cut deals to testify against the major actors."
Criminal defense attorney Dan Horowitz tells the paper that prioritizing the tenants, who arguably bore more direct responsibility, was wise. "The property owner could have been charged but the jury may have hung on that defendant and it would’ve put a cloud over a very good case against the other defendants."