Ghost Ship fire’s many court cases
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.
Alameda County Deputy District Attorney David Lim is one of the prosecutors trying the Ghost Ship fire defendants.
Max Harris, left, and Derick Almena are charged with involuntary manslaughter in the 2016 fire.
Tony Serra has tried to shift blame for the Ghost Ship fire away from his client, Derick Almena.