The two defendants in the manslaughter case stemming from the December 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland are finally facing trial over two years later, and families of the 36 victims are expected to attend.
The trial begins Tuesday for warehouse proprietor and master tenant Derick Almena, 48, and second-in-command Max Harris, 29, whom Alameda County prosecutors have judged responsible for the deaths of 36 people in an out-of-control fire during a music event. Both men face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter and the possibility of 39 years in state prison — and while many family members of the victims want to see the maximum potential punishment, both men could have been out of prison far sooner were it not for Almena's words in an August 2018 plea hearing.
Almena and Harris had struck a deal with prosecutors to plead no contest and to serve nine and six years, respectively — with time served they each might have been out within three years. But as the Chronicle reported last year, a lengthy essay Almena had submitted to a probation officer rubbed Judge James Cramer the wrong way. In it, Almena reportedly spoke of being a victim himself, and Cramer said it was evidence that Almena did not feel true remorse. Cramer rejected the plea deal, nullifying Harris's in the process because it was part of a package.
Almena said his words had been taken out of context, and he has said he's already been tried in the court of public opinion. However he's also proven to be an off-putting personality by most accounts, making a tasteless and tone-deaf pledge in court to have his body tattooed with flames as penance in speaking to victims' families.
Victims' families, meanwhile, cheered Cramer's decision, saying that the plea deal amounted to a slap on the wrist for what was a horrific mass death.
Caught in the middle, arguably, is Harris, who nonetheless was on the scene the night of the fire (Almena was staying in a hotel with his wife and kids as part of a court order from Child Protective Services that the children not be exposed to parties at the warehouse), and was acting as the doorman for the underground electronic music party attended by dozens of people. The New York Times Magazine published an arguably biased profile of Harris in December, painting him as a victim of Almena's reckless and forceful influence.
The December 2, 2016 blaze is thought to have likely begun in the rear of the building, possibly from overloaded electrical lines or via an old refrigerator that had already reportedly caused a small fire previously. Officially, fire inspectors were never able to pinpoint the source of the fire.
Almena had spent two years, with the help of Harris, building a warren of rooms and makeshift staircases into the space, which photos showed to be an eclectic bohemian installation filled with pianos and tapestries, lined with old Oriental rugs and decorated with large amounts of scrap wood.
Attorneys for Almena — led by local character Tony Serra, 83, who led the defense of Raymond "Shrimp Boy" Chow in a 2016 Chinatown murder and racketeering case — have tried to argue that the city, landlord and fire department all should be held responsible for not cracking down on the illegal buildout and parties. Expect plenty of evidence to be presented at trial showing how many visits police and fire inspectors had made to the space, and how much the landlord knew about the 20+ tenants Almena had living there.
As the Chronicle reports, the trial could initially be delayed by fights over jury selection and arguments over "lingering motions." Harris's defense attorney, Curtis Briggs, filed a motion two weeks ago to delay the trial six months based on the discovery of new evidence.
Judge Trina Thompson has budgeted 12 to 18 weeks for the trial, potentially allowing for time off for jurors to ease hardships around such a lengthy proceeding.
Expect updates on the regular on SFist as new revelations in the case arise.