The five-month ordeal that was the Ghost Ship fire trial and jury deliberations ended Thursday with no catharsis or closure for the families of the 36 people who perished in the December 2016 warehouse blaze.
Max Harris, 29, was acquitted of all 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and the jury was deadlocked on the guilt of 49-year-old Derick Almena, who conceived of and built the artists' residence and venue that became a deathtrap.
"It's painful knowing that so many of the families still don't understand and feel that they aren't getting justice," said Laura Lind, Harris's aunt, who attended many days of the trial and spoke to NBC Bay Area on Thursday.
Lind was among the family members who waited to greet Harris after his release from Santa Rita Jail at 6 p.m. yesterday. Harris declined to give any interviews, and his lawyers reportedly were bringing him a decent vegan meal — something he was not easily able to get in his two years in administrative segregation, which he and Almena have referred to as "solitary confinement."
Reactions among the victims' families were a mixture of anguish, acceptance, and anger. While many may have focused their rage at Almena, David Gregory, the father of fire victim Michela Gregory, was upset that Harris was not found guilty. "There’s a man walking out there that should be in jail right now,” he said to KPIX/CBS SF. “He was willing to take a plea deal for six, years, OK? You tell me if that’s not a guilty person."
The plea deal he's referring to was thrown out by Superior Court Judge James Cramer last August after Almena gave a statement in court that the judge found lacking in genuine remorse. Many of the victims families were also dissatisfied with the deal, believing that Almena's agreed-to nine years, which could have been cut down to three and a half for good behavior and time served, was insufficient punishment. Both he and Harris faced up to 39 years in jail in the trial.
Almena has continually made statements since the tragedy expressing his sorrow at the loss of life, while still defending the warehouse interior itself as a thing of beauty. As the Chronicle reported, when Almena took the stand in July, he said, "I instigated something, I drove something ... I dreamed something. I invited beautiful people to my space."
Almena will be back in court on October 4 to set a new trial date. It will be interesting to see, after the jury voted 10 to 2 to convict him, if his defense team will again pursue the arson theory that clearly was not convincing to the jury.
Judy Hough, who lost her son Travis in the fire, was more philosophical than some, in speaking to KPIX. "Having someone else suffer is not going to make me happy. I just wanted some accountability."
As she put it to the Chronicle on Thursday, "The worst has already happened, having someone else suffer wouldn’t change that."
Mary Vega, the mother of victim Alex Vega, tells the paper, "Everyone should be held accountable — Max Harris, Almena, the building owners. I lost my son because of this, and this is what happens? I am not happy about it."
Alberto Vega, the brother of the victim, said to the Chronicle, "I feel sick to my stomach. There should be a retrial. I know it’s going to be long and exhausting, like this already was. The whole thing just sucks."