Defendant Max Harris Tells Jury, 'There Was No Sort of Authority Figure' at Ghost Ship

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Max Harris, One of two men facing 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the Dec. 2, 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire took the stand Monday, June 17, 2019. (Vicki Behringer/KQED)

One of two men facing 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the Dec. 2, 2016, Ghost Ship warehouse fire took the stand Monday and testified for more than three hours about his role at the unpermitted residence and venue.

Max Harris, wearing an orange shirt and a checkered pocket square, described himself as a powerless, janitor-like figure at the Oakland warehouse who only referred to himself as creative or executive director ironically, to make light of the fact that Ghost Ship was run as a freewheeling, nonhierarchical collective.

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"There was no sort of authority figure," he said. "It was a co-dreaming situation."

Prosecutors allege Harris and codefendant Derick Almena, the warehouse's lease-holder, built and operated Ghost Ship with a willful disregard for safety, making them criminally responsible for the deaths the night of an electronic music event. But the defense says Harris and Almena are scapegoats for the landlord and police and fire officials who visited the warehouse without flagging unsafe conditions.

Harris' testimony showed "the way it really functioned at the warehouse," defense attorney Curtis Briggs told reporters outside the courthouse.

"It was organic, he wasn't somebody who was actually in charge," Briggs said.

Harris acknowledged that he collected other tenants' rent, and once served a resident with a three-day eviction notice that he sourced from the internet. But he said he only received free rent in exchange for cleaning and lending his skills as an artist, not for performing the duties of a property manager.

Harris said other tenants similarly received free or discounted rent for what he called a "work trade" arrangement.

He said Oakland fire officials and police officers entering the warehouse "dozens of times" before the fire, including an Oct. 30, 2016, incident in which officials went upstairs to access the roof. At no point, Harris said, did anyone tell him they considered the warehouse a "firetrap."

He also sought to clarify recorded statements to fire investigators, which jurors heard earlier in the trial, regarding his role in tending to the improvised electrical system. The warehouse's electricity was routed in through automobile repair shop next door, and it went out approximately once a month.

In the recording played for jurors, Harris described fuses "literally" exploding, resulting in the power outages. But on Monday, he said it was the responsibility of the neighboring business to replace them. Harris also said he complained about the power to the landlord, who then hired an unlicensed electrician. Harris said the electrician, Ben Cannon, worked on outlet boxes in the adjoining buildings.

Briggs, outside the courthouse, said that since the prosecution has suggested the fire resulted from the electrical setup, the unlicensed contractor and the landlord should be the ones on trial.

Investigators previously testified they could only determine where and not how the fire started.

Harris called the workers at the neighboring automobile repair shop "intimidating," saying he would wave, but didn't feel comfortable talking to them and that he suspected that it was "like a chop-shop or something."

Max Harris, one of the two men facing 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the Dec. 2, 2016, Ghost Ship warehouse fire, downplayed his role at the unpermitted residence and venue during his testimony on Monday, June 17, 2019. Codefendant Derick Almena sits at the defense table. (Vicki Behringer/KQED)

Harris also described his role in arranging the ill-fated electronic music event. He said any tenant could authorize an event at the warehouse, and that he connected with Ryan O'Keefe and Jon Hrabko, whom he called the gig's "organizers," through a mutual friend, Micah Danemayer, who ultimately died in the fire.

That night, Harris said, he agreed to stamp hands at the door, but he wasn't the one who collected money. He said the event was "NOTAFLOF," an acronym standing for "no one turned away for lack of funds." After greeting some 80 to 90 people, Harris said he went to the bathroom, when he saw a faint glow in the warehouse.

"It didn't look right," he said. As he walked towards the glow, he heard someone shout, "Fire!" At that point, Harris said he recovered a fire extinguisher from his studio and then aimed it at the flames crawling across the ceiling, but that he realized the stream of retardant was completely ineffectual on the blaze.

"I was in panic mode," he said. "A voice in my head or my chest said, 'Get out.'"

Harris opened his testimony by describing his multidisciplinary practice as an artist. He called himself a student of the "common thread" between the world's religions and said he is a practicing Buddhist.

"I'm a child of God," he said, noting that his many tattoos reference "nature and spiritual or religious traditions."

He said he moved in to Ghost Ship in 2014.

"My options were very limited," he said.

Prosecutors are expected to cross-examine Harris on Tuesday.