Prosecutor Says Ghost Ship Victims Had 'No Notice, No Time and No Exits'

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Casey Bates makes his opening statements in the Ghost Ship fire criminal trial on Tuesday as defendants Max Harris (third from left, seated) and Derick Almena (second from right) look on. (Court illustration by Vicki Behringer)

Updated 6:45 p.m.

The prosecution in the trial of two men — each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the Dec. 2, 2016, Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland — read aloud the names of those killed in the blaze as photos of each victim were displayed on screens in an Alameda County courtroom Tuesday.

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Prosecutor Casey Bates, an assistant district attorney for Alameda County, said during his opening statement that the three dozen people couldn't escape the illegally converted East Oakland warehouse "because there was no notice, no time and no exits."

Some attending the trial sobbed at times and shared boxes of tissues before court went into lunch recess.

The warehouse nicknamed "Ghost Ship" caught fire during an electronic music party, killing 35 concertgoers and one resident.

"They paid money, but didn't survive because there was no notice of smoke and flames," Bates said before the jury.

Faulty electrical wiring was suspected, but the official cause of the fire was never determined.

Defense attorney Curtis Briggs, who represents Max Harris, said evidence will prove arson as the cause of the fire, saying "the people who lit the Ghost Ship on fire are not on trial. The owners are not on trial. The people who threw the party on Dec. 2 are not on trial."

He said at least three people will testify who say they saw several strangers flee the warehouse just before the fire, including one witness who said they saw seven to 10 Latino men in dark clothes running near the warehouse claiming they boasted of setting up a wooden obstruction in the building.

Bates outlined the case against master tenant Derick Almena and Harris, often described as Almena's "second-in-command," saying they had converted the commercial warehouse into a residential and performance space stuffed from floor to ceiling with flammable materials. Bates showed images of living spaces with walls made out of pianos or old doors and windows used to mark off rooms.

Bates said the Ghost Ship wasn't outfitted with the types of safety precautions required in such a converted warehouse, including sprinkler systems, fire alarms and well-lit, easily identifiable exits.

Bates said that as an arts space, people brought in wooden materials, solvents, paints, power tools and other equipment, creating walls made out of non-traditional materials to create residential spaces. No sheetrock was used, which could have slowed a fire.

"Floor to ceiling, it was non-conventional flammable material throughout," Bates said. He said the only running water to the facility was supplied by a garden hose. He said there was one fire detector in one of the living spaces that no one heard the night of the fire.

Bates said Almena discovered the warehouse on Craigslist in 2013 and co-signed for the building with Nicholas “Nico” Bouchard. But Bouchard quickly became concerned about alterations to the warehouse Almena had been making, Bates said. Bouchard moved out of the building within weeks and attempted to get out of the lease, which Eva Ng, the daughter of warehouse owner Chor Ng, wouldn’t allow.

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Bates said Rodney Griffin, a construction worker, will testify that Almena ignored his advice on safety improvements, even after Griffin called the building a "death trap." According to Bates, Almena told Griffin, "We can do it better, cheaper," and hired an unlicensed contractor through Craigslist.

Bates said that in October 2015 Harris moved in and began acting as a manager and creative director, saying he collected rent, created leases, issued evictions and paid the rent to the landlords. He paid none of his own rent, Bates said.

Briggs countered that the prosecution was trying to portray a hierarchical structure and that Harris was a second in command at the warehouse. But Briggs instead called Harris "a Christ-like and Buddhistic figure." He called Harris a servant and not a boss — someone who performed janitorial task around the Ghost Ship cleaning dishes, mopping floors and patching holes in the roof. Briggs said the term “creative director,” sometimes used to describe Harris, came from a joke, but stuck with him.

"They [the prosecution] wants to turn him into a middleman," Briggs said.

Bates showed an image of a letter he said represented a sublease agreement between Harris, acting as an agent of Almena, with a tenant of the warehouse, in violation of the master lease's prohibition against residential use.

He also played video footage of Harris and Almena speaking with police officers, claiming no one had lived in the warehouse. "Nobody lives here. We just build sets here," Almena says in a June 2015 clip. In another June 2015 clip Harris says, "We work here. It's a 24-hour work studio."

Bates said that by the night of the blaze, as many as 25 people could be living in the warehouse at any one time. Pointing to a map of the lower level of the warehouse, he said there were 13 different residential spaces on the first floor, along with five RVs parked inside.

He said amps and other equipment blocked stairwells as people tried to flee.

As Bates played 911 tape for the court, he noted how quickly the warehouse was consumed.

One witness, who will testify at a later date, called 911 approximately one minute after she caught notice of the blaze and fled. Her call lasted 53 seconds, indicating that within the span of one minute and 53 seconds, all 36 victims may have become trapped.

Defense attorney Tony Serra, who represents Almena, is scheduled to deliver his opening statements Wednesday.

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