In the absence of a definitive conclusion about the cause of the Dec. 2, 2016 Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, defense attorneys for Derick Almena and Max Harris are presenting a theory backed up by three witnesses that the real cause was arson.
Many have speculated that the defense's case in the Ghost Ship trial — which kicked off Tuesday with opening statements — would rely on shifting blame onto outside individuals for not maintaining the safety of the building (which Almena and Harris do not own).
But as Bay City News reports, one of the first instructions given to the jury on Tuesday was that they must not consider the liability of the property owners, the fire department or any city official.
Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Casey Bates gave his opening statement first, describing the scene of the music show where 35 attendees arrived expecting to have a good time and go home, but never made it out. A 36th victim resided in the illegal artists' residences on the warehouse's ground floor that Almena had built out between 2013 and 2014, living there himself with his wife and three children — though all of them were not present the night of the fire because they were under order from Child Protective Services to keep the kids away from party nights at the space.
Bates painted a portrait of Almena as a man who carelessly constructed a dangerous loft space out of makeshift materials, repeatedly flouting safety concerns. As the Chronicle reports, Bates gave weight to each of the victims' lives lost, reading off each name in the manslaughter counts the defendants are charged with, as "Count one, Jason McCarty. Count two, Donna Kellogg. Count three, Sara Hoda..."
And Bates repeated a phrase, like a mantra, through his opening statement, that the vicims had "no notice, no time, no exits."
Bates also played short clips of video for the jury, including OPD body camera footage showing Almena lying to police and saying that no one lived in the space, and "All the artists sign contracts saying this is not a residence."
But as Harris's defense attorney Curtis Briggs began his opening statement Tuesday, it became clear that he will both try to distance his client from responsibility for the construction of the Ghost Ship space — he cited the fact that Harris did not move in until Almena had already largely laid out and constructed the space — and that both defense attorneys will be pushing a new theory in the case: that outsiders arrived at the party that night intent on torching the place.
As the East Bay Times reports, Almena's attorney Tony Serra took the floor Wednesday with a characteristically dramatic flair, describing witness accounts of gasoline canisters bursting, as "Pop, pop, pop, pop.” Serra says he will be calling three witnesses to the stand, Almena's friend Darold Leite and Sharon Evans, both of whom claim to have seen a group of men escape out the side door of the property as the fire began. Leite, who lived in the vacant lot beside the warehouse, claims to have to heard bottles breaking before the men ran past him. Evans, who had no connection to the property, was heading to a taco truck behind the building when she apparently saw a similar group of men. And per the East Bay Times, Ghost Ship resident Bob Mule corroborates this story saying that he saw a group of men he did not recognize near the rear corner of the building where the fire is said to have begun.
The official investigation of the fire failed to reach a definitive conclusion as to its cause, concluding only that overloaded electrical lines were a likely, but not certain culprit. Briggs and Serra are seizing on this to push for a new theory that may well be a key to reasonable doubt — while Almena, and perhaps to some extent Harris — can be seen as culpable for an irresponsibly constructed venue, arsonists are obviously a far more compelling possibility, if the testimony of the three witnesses proves convincing.