The trial against the two men charged with involuntary manslaughter in connection to the deadly 2016 “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire in Oakland, California ended Thursday with a mistrial for one of the defendants and a full acquittal for the other.
Derick Almena and Max Harris both faced 39 years if found guilty of the 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter; however, Harris was acquitted on all 36 counts, while a hung jury mistrial was declared for Almena who will head back to trial on October 4th.
The verdict followed a three-month trial and nearly a month of jury deliberations, during which three jurors were dismissed, the East Bay Times reported.
“We are eternally grateful” to the jury, Harris’ attorney, Curtis Briggs, said after they announced the verdicts at an afternoon hearing, culminating the four-month-long trial.
“I’m just in shock. I’m in disbelief, I’m upset, I’m hurt, all the emotions that you can imagine,” said David Gregory, the father of fire victim Michela Gregory, 21.
The jury of seven women and five men leaned toward convicting Almena but ultimately deadlocked 10-2 in favor of not guilty. Almena, 49, remains in custody and returns to court next month. The District Attorney’s Office took no questions from reporters and had brief comment after the verdict, only saying that it would evaluate whether to begin a second trial against Almena. A plea deal is another option.
Tony Serra, Almena’s attorney, afterward said, “I’m pained, I’m anguished, I’m frustrated, but goddammit we will win next time.”
The devastating blaze, the deadliest structure fire in modern California history, broke out around 11:20 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2016. All 36 victims died by smoke inhalation, most of them caught on the second floor when the blaze broke and quickly spread throughout the cluttered warehouse. In their last moments, some victims texted loved ones parting messages such as “I’m gonna die now” or “I love you. Fire.”
Almena was the Ghost Ship’s primary lease-holder, having co-signed the document in November 2013 to rent the building owned by the Ng family. They agreed they would use the space by an artist’s collective to create artwork and hold community workshops and classes.
But Almena immediately and illegally turned the former dairy storage warehouse into a residence, inviting people to live there in a community setting, according to prosecutors. Harris, who moved into the building in late 2014, served as a “creative director” or second-in-command to Almena, they allege, adding that he helped organize events there and collect rent.
No fire sprinklers had been installed or lighted exit signs put up, and partygoers who tried to flee by descending the narrow, unstable makeshift front stairs from the second floor couldn’t move fast enough to escape. Prosecutors contended the defendants committed nine violations of Oakland’s fire code, including not obtaining permits for assembly, storing vehicles and failing to provide fire sprinklers or fire alarms. Police showed up on multiple occasions in calls to the warehouse, and video from their body camera footage showed Almena telling them no one lived inside.
Briggs, Harris’ attorney, contended Harris was not living at the Fruitvale District warehouse when it was stuffed with flammable materials.
The defense also introduced the theory of arson as a cause of the fire.
Although no official cause was ever determined by fire investigators, the defense introduced evidence that could point to arson. Witnesses said they heard what sounded like a fight break out and bottles breaking moments before the fire was noticed on the first floor, and that they saw a group of people wearing dark clothing leaving the scene. One star witness, Sharon Evans, testified that she heard a group of men at a taco truck near the warehouse that night boast about the fire, happy that people wouldn’t be escaping.
The trial officially began in April, but the case itself has been ongoing since the two men were arrested in spring of 2017. Harris, 29, was expected to be released from Santa Rita Jail on Thursday evening. His attorney said the first thing he plans to do is eat his first vegan meal since he was placed in solitary confinement after his June 2017 arrest.