Ghost Ship Trial: Defense Calls Key Witness to Support Arson Claim

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

During testimony Monday in the Ghost Ship trial, defense witness Sharon Evans recounted that on the night of the Dec. 2, 2016 warehouse fire that killed 36, she was waiting in line at a taco truck when she overheard a group of men reveling in their role in the nearby blaze.

“I heard them repeat that no one was gonna make it out of the building alive,” she said, describing the men as “ecstatic” and “happy about the way it was burning.”

The witness, key to the defense’s claim that the fire resulted from arson, said she and a friend had left church in East Oakland and were driving on International Boulevard when they saw the warehouse billowing smoke, and then circled the block at least 20 times before stopping for tacos in the parking lot of Goodwill.

While she was waiting in line, Evans said, a group of 14 to 19 men approached from the direction of the warehouse. She called the men “Spaniards,” later clarifying she meant Mexican-American, and said she thought they were “possibly some type of gang.” Evans said she waited weeks before approaching authorities because she feared for her life.

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It was a tetchy day in court as prosecutors strenuously objected to Evans’ testimony on the grounds of hearsay, and for most of the morning successfully prevented her from telling jurors what she overheard. But when Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates played a recording of Evans giving investigators an earlier statement (in an effort to highlight inconsistencies in her accounts), it opened the door for defense attorney Tony Serra to ask about what else she said in the interview.

During cross-examination, prosecutors drew attention to Evans' differing explanations of why she was in the area that night and questioned why she didn’t go to one of several taco trucks closer to her church. The prosecution also asked what time she noticed smoke, and Evans said 9:30 p.m. or 9:45 p.m., well before the fire is known to have started.

In comments to reporters outside the courthouse, Serra said Evans "embodies our defense."

Evans was one of the first witnesses called by counsel for Max Harris, who along with Derick Almena faces 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors say Almena and Harris built and operated the unpermitted Fruitvale district residence and event venue with willful disregard for safety, making them criminally responsible for the fire.

The defense argues the fire resulted not from their clients' actions or negligence, but from an act of arson, and have attempted to shift blame to the government officials who visited the warehouse without flagging unsafe conditions.

The defense also called Michael Russell, who paid $400 a month to live in an Airstream trailer inside the warehouse. Russell said the trailer did not contain gasoline or propane. The night of the fire he said was in the trailer when he overheard a "scuffle" downstairs and saw two to three men fleeing the building as it filled with smoke.

"At first I thought it was a standard fight," he recalled. "Then I heard someone yell, 'Fire!'"

As Russell rushed towards the front door, he said, he passed a woman in a red beanie and green dress at the foot of the staircase shouting, "Don't come down the stairs, there's a fire, this is the will of the spirit of the forest."

Russell also testified that he felt safe in the warehouse, calling descriptions of the shoddily constructed staircase overstated, but said that the rear staircase would be difficult to find for people who didn't already know it was there.

Asked if the tenants made decisions collectively, Russell said Almena was "definitely in charge in many ways," describing him as being at the top of the warehouse hierarchy, with Harris acting as second-in-command.

Russell said he is a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric and the City of Oakland, among other entities, but that it does not name Almena or Harris as defendants.

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The defense also recalled witness James Bowron, the Oakland Fire Department battalion chief who previously testified about his command the night of the fire and challenged his claim that he wouldn't have done anything differently.

Bowron stood by his decision not to tell his subordinates that he'd learned people were still in the warehouse, saying that by the time he arrived, there was "extremely low survivability" due to the fuel load and smoke inside.

Serra, in an aggressive line of questioning that elicited rapid objections, called Bowron's decision a "disgrace" and again claimed that the firefighter's testimony is designed to shield the City of Oakland from civil liability.

Brian Hough, whose son Travis died in the fire, told reporters outside the courthouse that, in his view, the arson defense didn't matter. "My son and 35 other people died because of the negligence of having a firetrap," he said.

The defense will continue calling witnesses on Wednesday.

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