Ghost Ship fire’s many court cases

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - BAY AREA - By Me­gan Cas­sidy

In sum­mer 2017, the Oak­land Fire De­part­ment re­leased its de­fin­i­tive re­port on the Dec. 2, 2016, Ghost Ship ware­house fire, de­scrib­ing in vivid and of­ten har­row­ing de­tail how 36 peo­ple died af­ter be­com­ing trapped in the burn­ing build­ing dur­ing an elec­tronic mu­sic con­cert.

The artist space was a tin­der­box, its first floor a maze of nar­row pas­sage­ways be­tween makeshift rooms and walls crammed with flammable ma­te­ri­als. A rick­ety stack of wooden pal­lets served as the only un­blocked “stair­way” to and from the sec­ond floor, where the party was be­ing held. Many of the vic­tims were found in clus­ters — on both

the first and sec­ond floors. Eight were found in or near a large area rug that was sus­pended among par­tially col­lapsed de­bris from the sec­ond floor.

But ab­sent from the re­port was a cru­cial de­tail: Though in­ves­ti­ga­tors lo­cated the fire’s ori­gin — on the first floor — and noted elec­tri­cal prob­lems,

they were un­able to say ex­actly what ig­nited the blaze. The cause, and the fi­nal word in the re­port, is un­de­ter­mined.

So it’s left to the courts de­cide who’s to blame, and now, nearly two years later, there still no le­gal res­o­lu­tion.

Crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tors say two men are re­spon­si­ble for the tragedy: Der­ick Al­mena and Max Har­ris, the ware­house’s mas­ter ten­ant and creative di­rec­tor, re­spec­tively. The de­fen­dants point to the build­ing’s owner and the city, whom they say should have bet­ter po­liced the space.

And the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies say all the above: An ever-grow­ing civil case is run­ning par­al­lel to the crim­i­nal trial, and both are sched­uled to be­gin in 2019.

Here’s a look at the tragedy’s du­el­ing nar­ra­tives and where each case stands.

Pros­e­cu­tors: Alameda County pros­e­cu­tors have charged Al­mena and Har­ris each with 36 counts of in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter, which could carry life sen­tences if con­victed by a jury.

Af­ter months of promis­ing to go to trial, Al­mena and Har­ris both pleaded no con­test to all of the charges in Au­gust in ex­change for re­duced sen­tences: nine years in jail for Al­mena and six for Har­ris. But Su­pe­rior Court Judge James Cramer found that Al­mena didn’t show enough re­morse for the vic­tims and scrapped the deal — for both — al­to­gether.

Pros­e­cu­tors David Lim and Autrey James typ­i­cally dis­cuss pro­ce­dures only dur­ing their pub­lic hear­ings and rarely speak about their ar­gu­ments on record. But a May court fil­ing of­fers per­haps the fullest pic­ture of the pros­e­cu­tion’s case to date.

Pros­e­cu­tors say Al­mena breached the terms of his lease by il­le­gally al­low­ing 15 to 25 peo­ple to live in the ware­house al­most as soon as he took over in late 2013. At a meet­ing with res­i­dents, wit­nesses re­called him “laugh­ing at sug­ges­tions” to make the ware­house safer, and that fol­low­ing build­ing codes was “way too con­ven­tional.” The ware­house was zoned only for in­dus­trial use, and a change to live/work space re­quires au­to­matic sprin­kler sys­tems, au­to­mated fire alarms and il­lu­mi­nated exit signs. In ad­di­tion, the party or­ga­niz­ers did not have re­quired per­mits from the city to hold a con­cert at the ware­house.

Pros­e­cu­tors pushed back at the de­fen­dants’ claim that the city’s lax build­ing in­spec­tions were to blame.

“Un­der Cal­i­for­nia law, par­ties can­not rely on a lack of en­force­ment,” they said. “In this case, at no time did De­fen­dants have a per­mit to op­er­ate the ware­house ei­ther for hous­ing or the type of event held on the night in ques­tion.”

De­fen­dants: Al­mena and Har­ris’ at­tor­neys have long tried to shift blame away from their clients.

They have ar­gued that the city was neg­li­gent be­cause it failed to in­spect the ware­house an­nu­ally, as state law re­quires. Al­mena’s at­tor­ney, Tony Serra, said a “mul­ti­plic­ity of po­lice of­fi­cers, fire­fight­ers, in­spec­tors and child pro­tec­tive ser­vices work­ers saw what was there” dur­ing vis­its to Ghost Ship and never flagged the ware­house as un­safe.

Har­ris’ at­tor­neys say their client didn’t share the same re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as the build­ing owner and didn’t need to know the build­ing’s le­gal re­quire­ments.

“He was just op­er­at­ing as an artist, and try­ing to make the space as liv­able for him­self and the other artists that lived there,” said de­fense at­tor­ney Tyler Smith.

The de­fense also said the build­ing’s owner, Chor Ng, and her fam­ily share the re­spon­si­bil­ity. Har­ris’ de­fense at­tor­ney, Cur­tis Briggs, re­cently pointed to civil court doc­u­ments that show the Ng fam­ily hired an un­li­censed con­trac­tor named Ben Can­non to up­grade their ten­ants’ elec­tri­cal in­fra­struc­ture.

Briggs said ev­i­dence pointed to elec­tri­cal prob­lems with Ng’s prop­er­ties be­yond the ware­house. He said other ten­ants had com­plained to the Ngs about the is­sues.

“There was an on­go­ing ef­fort, that none of the Ghost Ship peo­ple were even aware of, to up­grade sub­stan­dard elec­tri­cal in­fra­struc­ture,” Briggs said.

As of this week, the de­fen­dants are split on how they’d like their cases to pro­ceed. Al­mena is ask­ing that his plea deal be re­in­stated, while Har­ris wants to be vin­di­cated in trial.

The trial is sched­uled to be­gin April 2.

Vic­tims’ fam­i­lies: Run­ning par­al­lel to the crim­i­nal trial is a wrong­ful death civil case filed by fam­i­lies of the vic­tims. They con­tend that Pa­cific Gas and Elec­tric Co.,, the city of Oak­land, the Ng fam­ily and sev­eral oth­ers bear re­spon­si­bil­ity for the in­ferno — along with Al­mena and Har­ris.

The fam­i­lies al­lege PG&E failed to flag or shut down dan­ger­ous elec­tric fa­cil­i­ties in the ware­house; that the city of Oak­land’s po­lice and fire­fight­ers had seen the haz­ards and ig­nored them; and that the Ng fam­ily ne­glected to in­spect and main­tain its prop­erty.

All those su­ing for dam­ages re­lated to the Ghost Ship fire have been folded into one mas­ter com­plaint. They in­clude 34 of the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies, an in­jured sur­vivor and for­mer ware­house res­i­dents who lost their be­long­ings.

The plain­tiffs are ask­ing for not only mon­e­tary dam­ages, but re­forms to city poli­cies they say could have pre­vented the 36 deaths.

“The fam­i­lies do want to see the city change, and to pro­tect peo­ple who are forced to live in these kinds of con­di­tions,” said plain­tiffs’ at­tor­ney Mary Alexan­der. This would in­clude mea­sures to iden­tify un­safe prop­er­ties, force the land­lords to change them or shut them town.

“The fam­i­lies be­lieve that what the cities should do is help the artists and mu­si­cians who are liv­ing in places like this; help them find safe and good hous­ing,” she added.

Alexan­der is con­fi­dent the case will go to trial. It is sched­uled for Oc­to­ber 2019.

Civil de­fen­dants: The Ng fam­ily pub­licly re­sponded to the al­le­ga­tions against it in re­cent court fil­ings. Fam­ily mem­bers largely blamed the fire on their con­trac­tor, Can­non. They said he claimed to be a cer­ti­fied elec­tri­cian in Cal­i­for­nia, and they be­lieved he was qual­i­fied to per­form elec­tri­cal work on the prop­erty.

“These rep­re­sen­ta­tions were false,” the court fil­ing states.

Can­non mostly pleaded the fifth dur­ing a re­cent de­po­si­tion.

At­tor­neys for the city say Oak­land should be dis­missed from the case and have ar­gued that city li­a­bil­ity in such a tragedy would create a dan­ger­ous prece­dent. An Alameda County Su­pe­rior Court judge per­mit­ted some al­le­ga­tions last year, mean­ing the city could still be held li­able.

City at­tor­neys have ap­pealed to the Cal­i­for­nia State Supreme Court.

Michael Ma­cor / The Chron­i­cle 2017

Alameda County Deputy Dis­trict At­tor­ney David Lim is one of the pros­e­cu­tors try­ing the Ghost Ship fire de­fen­dants.

Alameda County Sher­iff’s Of­fice 2017

Max Har­ris, left, and Der­ick Al­mena are charged with in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter in the 2016 fire.

Brit­tany Hosea-Small / Spe­cial to the Chron­i­cle

Tony Serra has tried to shift blame for the Ghost Ship fire away from his client, Der­ick Al­mena.

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