'He Made a Mistake': Ghost Ship Juror Speaks Out Ahead of Retrial

A rose hangs in a memorial in front of the Ghost Ship warehouse on June 17, 2019. (Stephanie Lister/KQED)

One of the two jurors who voted in September to acquit Ghost Ship defendant Derick Almena spoke publicly for the first time on Friday, telling reporters she didn't think Almena had any criminal intent in connection with a massive fire at an Oakland warehouse in the Fruitvale neighborhood that killed 36 people on Dec. 2, 2016.

Former juror Betty Parker — or Juror Number 5 — said she was confident that Almena, the Ghost Ship's master tenant, believed the building was safe.

"The man had his family living there," she told reporters outside an Oakland courtroom where Almena appeared for a short procedural hearing in advance of his retrial. "Who would put their kids knowingly in that type of danger?"

Almena and Max Harris, who had been described as the Ghost Ship warehouse's second-in-command, were arrested on June 5, 2017. Each was charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. After a four-month-long, emotionally draining trial, a jury in September 2019 acquitted Harris of all charges but deadlocked 10-2 in favor of convicting Almena.

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Almena remains in county jail in lieu of $750,000 bail as he awaits his second trial, which is scheduled to begin in early April.

"He has to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And there was a lot of reasonable doubt as far as I’m concerned," Parker said.

She advised the jury in the retrial to "listen to everything."

"Take everything into account. And think with both your mind and your heart," said Parker, who was later spotted hugging Almena’s wife, Micah Allison, in the courthouse. "He has to live with this for the rest of his life, and to me that's a horrible sentence."

"He made a mistake, we all make mistakes,” Parker said.

During Friday's hearing, Tony Serra, Almena's defense attorney, filed a motion to unseal the names of the former jurors so his team could interview them in preparation for the retrial. Parker was one of at least five former jurors in the courtroom on Friday, four of whom consented to the request, according to Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson.

Starting on April 6, Thompson said, she will bring in four panels of 80 potential jurors for a total pool of 320 potential jurors. Jury selection is expected to take at least a few weeks, with opening statements not likely to begin until late April, she said.

"Not a lot occurred today, but we want a trial," Serra said after Friday's hearing. "The prosecution wants a trial and a trial has been confirmed."

That means Almena won't consider the possibility of a plea agreement with prosecutors, he said, adding that a new attorney, Vincent Barrientos, will replace the defense’s second-chair attorney Brian Getz, who is unavailable for the retrial.

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"We're excited because we think we'll do better than in the first trial," Serra said of the retrial, which he expects to last about half as long.

He noted that this time his team will be able to question members of the Ng family, who owned the warehouse, about their potential responsibility for the fire. During the first trial, the Ngs were exempted from testifying because of the possibility they could be charged for their role in the blaze. But with the statute of limitations for charges against them expired, the defense can now call them as witnesses.

"I'm going to grill them," Serra said.

In the original trial of Almena and Harris, prosecutors told jurors that the two men should be found guilty of involuntary manslaughter because they turned the warehouse into a death trap by creating an unsafe environment devoid of fire sprinklers, smoke alarms, lighted exit signs or stable stairs.

Prosecutors also alleged that Almena started violating the terms of the building's lease almost immediately after he signed it on Nov. 10, 2013, by allowing up to 25 people to live there even though it was zoned for commercial use, not residential.

Defense attorneys argued that firefighters, police officers and Child Protective Services officials who visited the warehouse on multiple occasions never told Almena and Harris that the building was unsafe.

They also argued that the fire was an act of arson that Almena and Harris couldn't have prevented. Prosecutors countered that there was no evidence of arson and called testimony by a key defense witness "unbelievable."

Additional reporting from Bay City News was used in this story.