Ghost Ship Trial: Defendant Replaced Exploded Fuses Among Managerial Duties at Warehouse, Jurors Learn

Friends of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire pay tribute at a memorial marking the one year anniversary of the fire on Dec. 2, 2017. (Guy Marzorati/KQED)

Before 36 people died in the Dec. 2, 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire, Max Harris often replaced the "charred shell" of exploded fuses and reset circuit-breakers as part of his managerial duties.

He also mediated disputes between tenants, collected and deposited rent, and created documents indicating he'd collected security deposits. He signed emails to the landlord and others as "Executive Director."

All of this he did in exchange for free rent at the unpermitted Oakland residence and event venue.

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Harris, one of two defendants each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, described his role at the Fruitvale district warehouse to Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators on Dec. 7, just days after the fire. Jurors in the trial heard a recording of the interview Tuesday in court.

Prosecutors called to the stand one of the ATF agents, Whitney Hameth, as well as Alameda County District Attorney's Office investigator Cinda Stoddard, who described the contents of Harris' cellphone, in an effort to show the defendant's outsized role in managing the warehouse that's been called a "death trap."

The evidence and testimony, delivered on what was expected to be prosecutors' second to last day of calling witnesses, seemed to counter the defense's depiction of Harris as a benignly helpful figure at an artist collective run without hierarchy or bosses.

The defense has also said the fire resulted not from the actions or neglect of Harris and codefendant Derick Almena, who held the lease, but from arson.

Prosecutors allege Harris and Almena built and operated the warehouse with a willful disregard for safety, making them criminally responsible for the deaths, while the defense has attempted to shift blame to the property owner and government officials who visited Ghost Ship without flagging unsafe conditions.

"I helped facilitate the vision of the space," Harris told the ATF agent. "If there was interpersonal conflict, sometimes I'd have to be the mediator." Laughing, Harris was forthcoming and self-deprecating about his duties. "I'm like the executive director, but I have my hand this far down the toilet."

Asked if his responsibilities included maintenance, Harris responded, "Yes." The power, delivered from an adjacent unit via extension cords, was a persistent problem. He said fuses would "literally explode."

At another point in the recording, Harris said that although he sometimes communicated with the property owner, "I never thought to reach out to the landlord to insist they install [fire sprinklers]."

Also in the ATF interview, Harris described blocking off certain areas of the warehouse in anticipation of the electronic music event on the night of the fire, and generally fielding requests to book the space.

Under cross-examination, Harris' attorney Curtis Briggs asked Hameth if the defendant voluntarily agreed to the interview and provided useful information. Hameth responded that Harris was cooperative.

Stoddard, the District Attorney's Office investigator, whose testimony will continue Wednesday, described writing search warrants for the contents of Harris' cellphone and email account. Almena's phone wasn't recovered, she said.

Prosecutors projected photographs extracted from the phone, including one of what appeared to be a handwritten rental agreement between Harris and a tenant indicating the collection of a "$500 security deposit for studio space at Satya Yuga," another name for the Ghost Ship warehouse.

Harris also described himself as the space's manager, and referred to Ghost Ship as "my warehouse," in direct messages to other users of the dating app Tinder, which prosecutors also projected for jurors.

"I'm just getting ready for an event I'm about to host," he wrote in a Tinder direct-message the day before the fire. In a different exchange on Tinder, he wrote, "I manage a hidden gem here in Oakland[.]"

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Also on Tuesday, Jonathan Axtell recounted his narrow escape from Ghost Ship the night of the fire. Upon arriving, Axtell testified that he found the bottom floor beautifully decorated, and ascended a staircase he described as “handmade” and with unevenly spaced steps to find several friends upstairs.

After taking a few pictures of the scene, Axtell said he noticed a “small strand” of smoke seeping up through the floorboard. He recounted locking eyes with his friends Alex Ghassan and Hanna Ruax before a “pounding, black cloud of smoke” rushed up from the stairwell and hit him in the face. Axtell then recalled holding his breath while he rushed through the smoke down the stairs, hoping to reach "the only exit I knew of."

In the stairwell, the smoke was too thick for Axtell to see the glow of the cellphone in his hand, he said. Someone passed him on his way down, coughing and saying the smoke was "too thick," but Axtell continued navigating towards the front door, relying on his memory of the lower-level layout, he recalled. Downstairs, he said he saw a faint glow and thought he might not survive.

"I hit a wall and pushed," he said. "It turned out to be the door." It was approximately 15 seconds after he'd seen the wisp of smoke upstairs, he said, and he was surprised to realize his friends weren't close behind.

Axtell said he reopened the door, waving his cellphone flashlight and shouting to draw people to the exit. Then he went to the side of the building and, standing on a car, used a rock to break upper-floor windows until his hand started to bleed, he said.

Once firefighters arrived, he told one of them that people were still inside the building. "She looked very surprised," he said.

Jurors also heard testimony from Oakland police officer Brian Kline and saw footage from his visit to the warehouse in 2015. In the video, Almena said that no one lived inside.

Kline, under cross-examination, said he’d been inside the warehouse previously in 2014, when a tenant told him it was being used residentially.

The defense is expected to begin calling witnesses on Monday, June 10.