Ghost Ship Fire Verdict

Sep 5, 2019
Originally published on September 5, 2019 8:39 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When a fire broke out three years ago in a converted warehouse in Oakland, Calif., 36 people died. The warehouse was known as the Ghost Ship. It was a space where people lived, created art and hosted parties. After the fire, two people were put on trial. And now the jury has reached a mixed decision. They acquitted one defendant, Max Harris. He was the assistant to the master tenant, Derick Almena, who ran the building. In Almena's case, the jury failed to reach a verdict, resulting in a mistrial. Both were charged with involuntary manslaughter. Joining us from member station KQED in San Francisco is reporter Sam Lefebvre.

Welcome.

SAM LEFEBVRE, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: Remind us what happened that night. What were the facts of the case?

LEFEBVRE: On December 2, 2016, there was an underground electronic music party at an artist collective in East Oakland called the Ghost Ship. Just after 11 p.m., a fire broke out on the bottom floor of the warehouse. Now, the defendants didn't set the fire. And, in fact, only one of them, Harris, was there that night. The cause of the fire was never officially determined. But as the operators of the warehouse, the prosecutors believe they were criminally responsible for the deaths of these 36 people.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about the case that the prosecutors made. What did they argue?

LEFEBVRE: So the prosecutors allege that the defendants built and operated this place as an unpermitted residence and concert venue and that they did this with a really willful disregard for safety. They allege that the defendants stuffed the warehouse with wooden furniture and kindling and even RVs repurposed as art and music studios, creating a really brazen fire hazard.

SHAPIRO: And what did the defense say?

LEFEBVRE: Well, the defense tried to shift the blame away from the two men who ran the building and onto the building's owner. They also pointed out that many city officials visited this place, and they didn't flag any unsafe conditions. Another part of the defense was the idea that the fire started not due to the defendants' neglect or actions but to a deliberate act of arson. Again, the cause of the fire was never officially determined. Now, at least in the case of Max Harris, the jurors seemed to be persuaded by this argument. They also seemed to be persuaded by his defense attorney's argument that Max was really just an assistant who held no real power.

SHAPIRO: What about the other defendant, Dick (ph) Almena for whom - sorry, Derick Almena for whom the jury did not reach a verdict?

LEFEBVRE: Well, the prosecutors are saying now, somewhat vaguely, that they're evaluating their prosecution. In a statement, the DA said that because the judge has declared a mistrial, prosecutors can't comment further. But a mistrial means Derick could be retried. And we know that there's a new court date, and we're going to learn more. And that's October 4.

SHAPIRO: And any response yet from family members of those killed in the fire?

LEFEBVRE: So the lead attorney for the families in a separate, civil case says they're really disappointed by the verdict today. We know that family members who've spoken out throughout the trial really wanted to see these two men go to prison.

SHAPIRO: That's reporter Sam Lefebvre on the verdict in the trial of two people associated with the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland three years ago. He joined us from member station KQED.

Thank you, Sam.

LEFEBVRE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.