Two men charged with involuntary manslaughter after a fire broke out at a California warehouse, killing 36 people, disregarded the safety of others when they illegally converted the building into a residence for artists and threw unpermitted parties there, prosecutors said Monday.
At closing arguments in the trial of Derick Almena and Max Harris, Alameda County prosecutors said three dozen people had no notice, time or ability to escape the fast-moving fire in December 2016 because the warehouse was not properly equipped with smoke alarms or sprinklers.
Prosecutors said Almena rented the warehouse, initially for the purpose of building theatrical sets, but then he quickly sublet the space to other artists and filled it with highly combustible materials that fueled the fire. Harris, 29, is accused of helping Almena convert the warehouse, collect rent and coordinate parties there.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Autrey James told jurors that to find the men guilty of involuntary manslaughter, they must agree that their actions were criminally negligent.
“Is failure to get a permit criminally negligent? Absolutely,” he said.
Federal fire officials traced the origin of the blaze to a back corner on the ground floor of the warehouse. They did not determine a cause, however.
During the trial, the men’s attorneys raised the possibility that the fire was caused by arsonists and argued that others shared the blame, including the city of Oakland, its fire department and the warehouse’s landlord.
Almena testified he did not rent the warehouse with the intention of moving in, but he said he could not prevent artists from sleeping there. He eventually moved in with his wife and their three children.
Harris described the Ghost Ship as a free-floating artist enclave where everybody furnished the space as they saw fit and rejected prosecutors’ characterization that it was a death trap. The men also testified that officials with the police and fire departments, as well as child welfare officials, had entered the warehouse on various occasions and did not raise concerns about the fire hazards.
Almena and Harris have also been named in lawsuits from victims’ families, who contend that Oakland’s fire and building departments failed to inspect the warehouse annually as required. The suits say inspectors would have discovered the illegal conversions.
The owners of the building were also named in the lawsuit and have not spoken about the fire.
Almena and Harris were set to be sentenced to nine and six years in prison, respectively, after pleading no contest to manslaughter last year. But a judge threw out their pleas after many of the victims’ families said their proposed sentences were too lenient.
The case could be in the hands of a jury by early August.