Ghost Ship Trial Defendant Testifies He Believed Dwellings Could Be Built in Warehouse

1 min
Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena during his first day of testimony in the criminal trial in which he faces 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. (Vicki Behringer/KQED)

Updated 6:05 p.m.

At times combative, Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena continued to defend himself under a second day of cross-examination from the prosecution, saying he believed dwellings could be constructed in the Oakland warehouse that caught fire on Dec. 2, 2016, killing 36 people.

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Almena and tenant Max Harris, who has been described as the Ghost Ship's creative director and second-in-command to Almena, both face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the blaze that killed 35 concert-goers and one tenant the night of an electronic music party.

Almena testified that an email from Eva Ng, daughter of landlord Chor Ng, indicated to him that the building was zoned for the types of activities he intended to use the building for, including "community outreach" and "civic activities." Almena said he thought contractors would obtain the permits.

Under cross-examination from Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James, Almena also said he believed he could build dwellings inside the warehouse, but that it was not his original intention.

A video taken following Almena’s arrest in June 2017 was shown to the jury, in which he told investigators that activities could be held at the warehouse and dwellings could be built in the space according to zoning regulations he had read. Almena said he had given those statements under duress because he had just been arrested, removed from his home and charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

The prosecution has argued that Almena and Harris illegally converted the warehouse into an unsafe living space without consideration for proper safety regulations, such as installing sprinkler systems, fire alarms, smoke detectors and well-lit exits. The defense has argued that the blaze was started as an act of arson. The cause of the fire was never officially determined.

Prosecutor James asked Almena why he would lie to police on several occasions about people living in the warehouse if he believed it was OK to build living spaces there.

Almena responded that he wasn't "completely aware" of whether people could live there until a later incident during which police determined that someone that occupants had wanted to remove from the building had been granted "squatters’ rights."

Almena also testified Tuesday that he had lied to police about where people lived in the warehouse at the advice of Kai Ng, son of Chor Ng.

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On Wednesday, Almena again reiterated Kai Ng's "policy" after Ng had walked through the warehouse and seen kitchens and rooms.

"You guys are really living here. Don’t tell the cops," Almena said Ng told him.

'No Permits for Anything'

James questioned Almena about whether Eva Ng had requested he go over plans and provide copies of permits regarding the installation of a side door to the warehouse. Almena responded that no permits for the door existed.

Almena testified he also did not obtain permits for a set of stairs built in the front of the warehouse and for additional electrical and plumbing work.

Asked if he had acquired the proper permit to install a kitchen, Almena said there were "no permits for anything." He also said he didn’t obtain operational permits for events because he didn’t think they were required.

James asked about the types of safety measures installed at the Ghost Ship. Almena said there was no sprinkler system and no internal or external fire alarms. He said there were no smoke detectors in the stairwells or in the upper level dance area or lower level common areas. He said detectors were in his kids' areas, in the kitchen and elsewhere. He said there was an illuminated exit toward the front of the building, but that it only worked if the switch was on.

'Debaucherous Parties'

James also questioned Almena about testimony he gave Tuesday in which he said raves and "debaucherous" parties weren’t allowed at the warehouse.

James focused on a 2014 New Year’s party where police were called when things became “physical” between the organizers of the event. Almena said he did not plan the party and "hid most of the time."

James asked Almena about statements he made in a Jan. 3, 2015, police report and whether he had told a police officer that condoms were left all over the floor the night of the party and that his son had put one in his mouth.

Almena responded that his son had touched a condom but did not put it in his mouth. His reply prompted James to play body camera footage from the night of the police report, in an effort to challenge Almena's court testimony.

The defense objected, saying the audio was “inaudible,” and Serra said the prosecution was engaging in “character assassination” and that the video should not be admissible as evidence.

Alameda County Judge Trina Thompson excused the jury for the remainder of the afternoon session in order to play the full video for the "purpose of refreshing the recollection of Mr. Almena" and to hear objections from the defense.

James argued that the video was not character assassination. "It’s about his credibility,” he said. “If any witness says something directly contrary to their previous statement, they can be confronted.”

Curtis Briggs, who represents Max Harris, argued that the video should be "unambiguous" regarding its content.

In the video, the officer writing the police report repeated aloud Almena's statements, which included describing that his son had put a condom in his mouth. After viewing the entire video, Judge Thompson sided with the prosecution in allowing it as evidence.

“Based on totality (of the video), the court finds proper impeachment,” Thompson said.

The prosecution is expected to continue cross-examination of Almena Thursday.

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