Lease Co-Signer, Mother of Fire Victim First to Testify in Ghost Ship Trial

3 min
The Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland on April 2, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Updated 7:06 p.m.

One of the original co-signers of the lease for an Oakland warehouse that caught fire in 2016, killing 36 people, testified Monday that he grew concerned over changes to the building, and tried to get out of the agreement within weeks of signing.

And in a surprise announcement, after testimony wrapped up Monday, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James told the court that electrician Robert Jacobitz, who was scheduled to testify this week, died Sunday. He had performed electrical work at the warehouse known as the Ghost Ship, according to reports.

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Nicholas "Nico" Bouchard, the second witness called to testify in the trial of two men each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, said he grew concerned over changes master tenant Derick Almena began making after they had signed the lease in November 2013. That included a 20-by-20-foot hole cut into the second floor in place of an old conveyor belt that people used to hoist pianos and organs.

The prosecution has argued that Almena and Harris filled the illegally converted warehouse with flammable building materials from floor to ceiling and hadn't implemented safety measures required of such a building.

Both Almena and Max Harris, often referred to as second-in-command or creative director, both face charges in the deadly fire that broke out on Dec. 2, 2016.

Bouchard cited he was concerned about the lack of smoke alarms, sprinklers and fire extinguishers inside the warehouse. He said about half of the electrical outlets in the building weren't operational.

Bouchard said he had been consulting with his mother regarding safety upgrades and also cited a meeting in Emeryville with Almena where they voiced these concerns. He said Almena "scoffed and laughed at us and called us too mainstream."

Bouchard said Almena, "liked to do things not by the books and "as DIY as possible."

After the meeting, Bouchard said he went away for a weekend to Harbin Hot Springs in Northern California, and when he returned he said he was "done," or wanted to get out of the lease.

Following questions from James, the Alameda County Deputy district attorney, Bouchard said he sent an email to Eva Ng, daughter of landlord Chor Ng, saying he was leaving the premises, and was dropping off his keys. He also advised Ng that she should evict Almena. Bouchard said he moved out of the warehouse within two to three weeks of signing the lease.

Bouchard said he was worried he would be stuck with the full liability of the lease due to Almena's changes. In later meetings, Bouchard said Almena wanted to work with him on a music festival project but said he wouldn't work with Almena because he "had become aggressive at that point" and "had a bad reputation." Bouchard also said in those visits after he moved out that Almena was "heavily using speed."

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The day's testimonies began dramatically with Carol Cidlik, mother of one of the victims. She cried as she identified a photo of her daughter, Nicole Siegrist, also nicknamed Denalda. She said she received texts throughout the day her daughter died.

James, the prosecutor, showed texts between the two, a final one from Siegrist that read, "I'm gonna die now." The defense had objected to the testimony before the jury was called to the courtroom, calling the text "inflammatory" and that it was "tugging at the heartstrings."

Defense attorney Tyler Smith, who represents Harris, said the "true reason is to appeal to the emotions of the jurors."

Judge Trina Thompson allowed testimony from Cidlik if it referred specifically to the time and location from where the text was sent.

Cidlik, who lives in Hawaii, said she had received the final text at 11:23 p.m. California time, the time at which the fire had broken out. Defense attorneys did not cross-examine Cidlik.

Elizabeth Mazzola, who lived at the Ghost Ship for about a month and escaped the night of the fire, was the final witness Monday and answered questions from James regarding the state of the warehouse.

Mazzola, who was subletting a living space on the first floor, said she saw a wall of flame as the fire broke out, and said she couldn’t recall any sprinklers, smoke detectors or emergency lights as she fled out the main pathway and out the front door of the warehouse. She said she wasn’t sure if she saw exit signs.

James also asked if she had seen any strangers in the area where the fire broke out to which she answered, “there was no one back there.”

The defense has argued, in a relatively new theory, that the warehouse was a target of arson and that no amount of safety measures could have prevented the fire. The defense said in opening statements last week that at least three witnesses will testify they saw strangers near the ignition point of the fire, heard a scuffle or fight and heard bottles popping. They said witnesses will testify that several people fled from the building through a side door just before the fire started.

Smith, the defense attorney, asked if Mazzola had only observed the area immediately after the fire started, not before. Mazzola said that was correct.

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