Defense in Ghost Ship Trial Asserts Evidence Will Show Arson as Cause of Deadly Fire

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A courtroom sketch depicts defense attorney Tony Serra (far right) seated next to defendant Derick Almena on April 30, 2019. (Court illustration by Vicki Behringer)

The defense in the trial of two men charged with 36 counts each of involuntary manslaughter in the deadly December 2016 Ghost Ship fire wrapped up opening statements Wednesday, reasserting that evidence will show arson was the cause of the blaze.

The East Oakland warehouse, nicknamed "Ghost Ship," caught fire on the Friday evening of Dec 2, 2016, during an electronic music party, killing 35 concertgoers and one resident.

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Defense attorney Tony Serra, who represents master tenant Derick Almena, said witnesses will testify that people were seen fleeing from the building through a side entrance just before the fire started. The statements echoed those made Tuesday by defense attorney Curtis Briggs, who represents the other defendant, Max Harris.

Serra said witnesses reported hearing "popping," or breaking glass, in the area where the fire began in the rear of the warehouse on the first floor. Serra said evidence that will be presented is circumstantial, but that the popping could have been Molotov cocktails or bottles filled with gasoline.

"There's no way my client could have predicted that," Serra said. "There's nothing he could do to prevent that."

Investigators never determined the cause of the fire.

Serra also said Almena had made a number of improvements to the site, putting money made right back into the premises to make the building safe and secure. He said Almena installed a rear door in the warehouse, ran 100-foot garden hoses along both sides of the building in case of a fire, made an exit sign, required fire extinguishers and implemented a policy of "no smoking, no candles and no incense."

Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates said Tuesday during opening statements that Almena and Harris, who is often referred to as second in command or creative director, 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.

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.

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

Serra also said Wednesday a number of agencies in the years leading up to the fire had passed through the building, including the Oakland Fire Department, Oakland Police Department, Alameda County Sheriff's Office and Child Protective Services. He said they had never found safety issues in the warehouse.

"And they never told him that it was a fire hazard," Serra said outside court. "They never red-tagged him. They never gave him an eviction notice. They didn’t give him any kind of notice that said ... if you don’t fix this up, get out."

During his opening statement, Serra said that CPS had been in the building at least six times before the fire, and while they weren't experts in fire prevention, he said they were trained in areas of safety and security and hadn't mentioned any hazards.

Serra also presented Almena as an individual not seeking profit, power or prestige at the Ghost Ship. He described Almena as "100% artist" and that the building was "his vision, something beautiful. It was something that was awesome."

He said Almena had procured the building in order to display his art collection, acquired during his travels with his wife around the world. Serra called the Ghost Ship a museum full of religious art.

"You could be looking at photos of the Louvre itself," Serra said as he presented two photos of the interior of the warehouse from some time before the fire.

Serra closed his statement by placing a blown-up photo of Almena, his wife and three kids on an easel before the jury.

"Art and family were paramount," Serra said.

Outside court, following opening statements, Serra said: "I wanted to show my client in his best light. I wanted to show that he is a skilled, consummate artist, and that he created Ghost Ship as an outreach forum to the community."

Testimony in the trial is expected to begin Monday, May 6, in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland.

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