A scheduled press conference with the defense team for Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena on Friday included a semi-surprise guest: Almena's wife Micah Allison. As the Chronicle reports, the event was held at the law offices of flamboyant criminal defense attorney J. Tony Serra who most recently took on the high-profile defense of Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow and Serra used the opportunity to continue making the case that his client and co-defendant Max Harris are being scapegoated by an ambitious district attorney "in order to shield the true culprits."
Almena and Harris were arrested and charged Monday with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter following a six-month investigation by the Alameda County District Attorney's Office. Both men are scheduled to be arraigned on Thursday, June 15.
Serra says that criminal charges should never have been brought against Almena and Harris, and that he planned to "defend by pointing the finger at the real culprits." Those culprits he says include city building inspectors, PG&E, and a tenant in a neighboring unit who installed a transformer in recent years (after a previous one caught fire) without a permit. Previously, Serra's team had hired an expert who suggested that the fire could have even begun in the next-door building, and further Serra cited that the Oakland Fire Department could be blamed for poking holes in the building roof during the blaze rather than extending a ladder to the second-story windows, potentially exacerbating the smoke situation and leading to more deaths.
Serra has been saying since he took the case in mid-December that Almena should not be made a scapegoat, and he reiterated that in Friday's news conference saying, "Just because there’s a death doesn’t mean there has to be a head on the stake."
As KRON 4 reports, Serra also spoke to Almena's mental condition, saying he's experiencing "almost total destruction of his mental stability." Jeffrey Krasnoff, another attorney working with Serra, said Almena was "deeply distraught" and added, "People died in his house. He is definitely having mental problems processing this, like anyone would."
Says DA's office is shielding public entities by charging Almena w/36 counts of involuntary manslaughter pic.twitter.com/KeM36kFebf— Melanie Woodrow (@MelanieWoodrow) June 9, 2017
Micah goes on to say "we would never have lived in a place we thought was unsafe." pic.twitter.com/kXPeRWaITF— Melanie Woodrow (@MelanieWoodrow) June 9, 2017
Allison spoke to reporters, refuting the idea that there could have been criminal intent on the part of Almena or Harris. "My husband is a good man, Max Harris is a good man, they're not greedy, they're not selfish or reckless," ABC 7 quotes her as saying.
Allison also suggested that the very fact that she and Almena lived on the premises with their three children should be proof that they did not consider the space to be unsafe. "We would never have lived in a place that was unsafe," she said, adding, per the Chronicle, that the reason her family was staying in a hotel that night was "not because of fear," but because of the loud music event that was scheduled there. (And there has been some suggestion that such hotel stays on party nights were something the couple began doing with their children after Child Protective Services had briefly taken the kids away from their custody the previous year, though the circumstances surrounding that have not been made public.)
For their part, PG&E has issued a public response to Serra's claims saying, "We've seen no evidence to date that would lead us to believe that our facilities were the cause of the fire." The exact cause of the fire, according to ATF investigators, will remain "undetermined" due to the incineration of evidence, however the finger has been pointed at electrical wires that brought power into the space via a hole punched in a rear wall, with an inadequate amount of power coming in from PG&E lines to the neighboring building, which is also owned by the same landlord, Chor Ng.
Interestingly, Serra and the defense team did not look to implicate Ng as one of the culprits he intends to blame in court.
Also of note, Krasnoff refuted the much publicized description of the rickety staircase made of wooden pallets in the Ghost Ship space. Per the Chronicle, "it was not a rickety staircase assembled from pallets, as Almena’s accusers have alleged, but prefabricated and installed with a wooden pallet at the bottom for a landing."
In response, the Alameda County District Attorney's Office said simply, "We do not try our cases in the media."