‘I Didn’t Go Back In': Ghost Ship Defendant Harris Said He Thought Everyone Was Getting Out

The facade of the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland on June 17, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

Updated 7:10 p.m.

Ghost Ship trial defendant Max Harris, during emotional testimony on Wednesday, said he regrets he didn’t go upstairs to help people leave the building on the night of the Dec. 2, 2016 Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36, because he thought everyone was escaping.

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James asked Harris eight times, one for each person that died in the blaze that Harris said he knew, if he had gone upstairs to make sure they had escaped. To each question, Harris responded no.

“I wish I went upstairs,” Harris said. “I don’t know if I’d be here right now.”

James asked, “You didn’t go back in to make sure everyone got out?”

“I didn’t go back in. I wish I did. I wish I did,” Harris answered.

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Harris also said he didn’t want to block the people who were coming down a set of stairs during the fire.

Harris said in testimony Wednesday that he had grabbed a fire extinguisher from his living space after he noticed the fire in the back of the warehouse, but said the extinguisher spray couldn’t reach the fire.

After dropping the extinguisher, Harris said he grabbed his cellphone and laptop and began running back and forth in a hallway, yelling to warn people of the fire. He said he did that for at least several minutes and then left the building to stand near a doorway and shine a light through it as a signal to people who still might be inside.

In his testimony Wednesday, Harris also reversed earlier statements he had made to investigators about whether the rear stairs of the warehouse were blocked on the night it burned down.

Harris told the court that the rear stairs were, in fact, not blocked, and that previous information he had given to investigators was based on incorrect information at the time.

James played video for the jury of Harris telling investigators six months after the fire — and after his arrest — that the rear stairs to the second floor were blocked near the bottom.

But in court, Harris responded to James’ questioning by saying that his understanding of the situation was not correct in the aftermath of the fire.

“I relayed my understanding at the time, which I now know is not accurate,” Harris said in court. “I heard a lot of misinformation after this first happened.”

Harris said he was also trying to be helpful to investigators at the time and that much of his misunderstanding had been corrected after hearing testimony and information about people using the stairs on the night of the blaze.

Harris and master tenant Derick Almena face 36 involuntary manslaughter charges stemming from the blaze in the unpermitted Oakland residence and performance venue on the night of an electronic music party.

Prosecutors argue that Harris and Almena illegally converted the warehouse into an unsafe living space stuffed with flammable materials and lacking proper safety measures like fire alarms, well-lit exits and sprinkler systems. Defense attorneys argue the blaze was started by an act of arson.

Harris answered a line of questioning from James about whether he had shown guests where exits were located in the warehouse.

Harris responded that he didn’t feel compelled to point out exits or the location of the rear or front sets of stairs. He said his understanding was that everyone knew where the stairs were.

“I wouldn’t be expecting something to happen,” Harris said. The exits were clear, he said, and one of them had an exit sign, but it was not lit.

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Harris also testified that he was a point-of-contact person for the Dec. 2 electronic music party, but said a lot of people “were working together on this.” He said people who didn’t live at the warehouse had promoted the event.

Harris said he believed he had shown Jon Hrabko, who was promoting the event, around the lower level of the warehouse, but wasn’t sure if he had shown him the back set of stairs.

James asked Harris about a list of duties that could be considered managerial roles at the warehouse. Regarding rent, Harris said he collected it from other tenantsand deposited it in the landlords’ bank account.

James also asked if Harris served as the "point person" at the Ghost Ship, citing an October 2016 email to the landlords about an attempt to lease an adjacent auto body shop, to which Harris answered, “In that instance, yes.”

Harris also said that he had served an eviction notice to one tenant.

Curtis Briggs, who represents Harris, said outside of court that Harris’ testimony will exonerate him.

“We’re really proud of Max. We’re excited that he finally got to testify and speak his truth after two years in custody in Santa Rita jail. He finally got to speak,” Briggs said. “They have no evidence against him. We’re very optimistic at this point.”

Harris’ defense is expected to call two more witnesses on Thursday. Tony Serra, who represents Almena, is expected to call his first three witnesses on Thursday as well.

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