Newsletter: Verdict in Ghost Ship trial brings more pain and frustration for families


Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Friday, Sept. 6, and I’m writing from Los Angeles.

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On Thursday — two years, nine months and four days after a fire ripped through an Oakland warehouse-turned-arts-collective, killing 36 people — a Bay Area jury returned a verdict in the Ghost Ship fire trial.

Two men, Max Harris and Derick Almena, had been facing 36 years in state prison on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the fire.

The jury acquitted Harris, the warehouse’s 29-year-old self-described “creative director,” and deadlocked on the charges against Almena, the warehouse’s property manager. Yesterday’s verdict capped a long judicial saga that involved two trials, an aborted plea deal and a near-mistrial. It was not immediately clear whether or not prosecutors would attempt to retry Almena.


“For the victims’ loved ones, many of whom had either sat in court and listened to heart-rending testimony about their relatives’ final moments during the four-month trial or flown back and forth from other parts of the country to attend key hearings, Thursday’s result was the latest round of pain and frustration,” as crime and policing reporter James Queally explained in his story on the verdict.

“You have 36 people who died, and there’s no one taking responsibility for this,” Grace Kim, whose cousin Ara Jo died in the fire, told Queally.

[Read the full story: “Ghost Ship verdict: Jury acquits one defendant, deadlocks on second in warehouse fire that killed 36” in the Los Angeles Times]

Further reading on the Ghost Ship fire:

  • “He helped build an artists’ utopia. Now he faces trial for 36 deaths there.” A nuanced and heart-wrenching profile of Max Harris, who did chores and collected rent at the artists’ warehouse where he lived before facing criminal charges for the deaths of some of his close friends. New York Times
  • Breaking news coverage from the East Bay Times: The Oakland paper won a Pulitzer for its relentless coverage of the tragedy and further reporting that exposed the city’s failure to take actions that might have prevented it. That reporting is collected here. East Bay Times
  • For many of the rescuers, the fire was a scene they can never forget. Los Angeles Times

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


A preliminary investigation into the Conception boat fire has suggested serious safety deficiencies aboard the vessel, including the lack of a “roaming night watchman” who is required to be awake and alert passengers in the event of a fire or other dangers, according to several law enforcement sources familiar with the inquiry. The inquiry also has raised questions about whether the crew was adequately trained and whether passengers received a complete safety briefing. Los Angeles Times


California vaccine bill supporters and critics are baffled by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s sudden changes. The governor’s 11th-hour demands — which could reduce or eliminate the number of existing vaccine exemptions that would be scrutinized by state officials — were made just days before the Legislature adjourns for the year, creating confusion and new conflict at the state Capitol. Los Angeles Times

A fast-moving brush fire that erupted in the hillsides near Murrieta grew to 1,974 acres Thursday and prompted new evacuation orders for more neighborhoods in the Southern California city of about 113,000. More than 500 firefighters have been assigned to the Tenaja fire in Riverside County, which was at 10% containment as of 6 p.m. Thursday. Los Angeles Times


This secret donor has given USC $400 million. In the 60 years since billionaire B. Wayne Hughes graduated from the university, he has quietly wielded power and bestowed enormous gifts at the university he loves. Los Angeles Times

Avocado toast ice cream has arrived, thanks to a local fourth-grader. Los Angeles Magazine

Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores became one of L.A.’s richest men snatching up imperiled companies and offloading them for profit. A prison phone business, though, has brought him only problems. Los Angeles Times

Plácido Domingo faces new sexual harassment reports, and the pressure on L.A. Opera continues to grow. Los Angeles Times

Day-Glo masterpieces are fading. Deep in a basement laboratory at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, a conservator and her team are racing to save them. Los Angeles Times

What happens when Netflix buys Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre? It’s complicated, and some local cinephiles are worried about what it will mean if the deal goes through. Los Angeles Times

The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The feud between the leader of the free world and the woman who played Grace on “Will & Grace” continues: On Thursday, President Trump called actress Debra Messing a “McCarthy style Racist.” Los Angeles Times

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Sexual assault complaints at the Otay Mesa Detention Center surged by 158% last year, according to a new report. Voice of San Diego

Also at Otay Mesa: Eleven men tested positive for mumps at the detention center this summer. San Diego Union-Tribune

Trump began dismantling DACA two years ago this week. Here’s what life is like for two undocumented students in the Coachella Valley. Desert Sun


California lawmakers are on the verge of approving one of the only state laws in the nation to limit rent increases after Gov. Newsom announced a deal with legislative leaders last week. Here’s how the state’s potential new plan to cap rent increases would work. Los Angeles Times

Incumbent Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Palm Desert) faces a particularly novel complication this election cycle. His challenger, a Republican, is also named Raul Ruiz. (Neither of these Raul Ruizes are to be confused with the legendary Chicano movement journalist and activist Raul Ruiz, who died in June. Read my colleague Gustavo Arellano’s excellent obituary for the late Raul Ruiz here.) Politico

San Francisco could require drivers who want to navigate the world-famous crooked portion of Lombard Street to book their slot ahead of time and pay a toll, if Gov. Newsom signs a bill the Legislature sent to him Thursday. San Francisco Chronicle


Warriors tickets, Louis Vuitton bags and “literal envelopes of cash”: Federal prosecutors charged the Bay Area’s largest home healthcare provider with paying doctors millions of dollars in kickbacks (including the aforementioned tickets, bags and Benjamins) in a scheme to defraud the Medicare system. Mercury News


The “blob” may be back: A large and unusually warm mass of water is once again threatening to disturb the marine ecosystem along the Pacific Coast from Southern California to Alaska. Researchers called the ocean phenomenon “the blob” when it appeared in 2014 and 2015. Los Angeles Times


The Wine Train in Napa Valley has been controversial for decades. This fascinating look at the history and future of the tourist-magnet train also offers a window into the cultural crises and issues facing the broader area. San Francisco Chronicle

The Kern County Fair will install metal detectors at gates and beef up perimeter security when it opens later this month. Bakersfield Californian

“Uber and Lyft are pulling a fast one every time they convince you that they’re ‘sharing.’ ” The Chronicle’s business editor pushes back on the term “ridesharing,” which he sees as a convenient fiction that allows big companies to avoid regulation. San Francisco Chronicle

A squatter turned a secret spot into a floor-to-ceiling art gallery, put up on the sly in downtown Sacramento. Sacramento Bee

Sacramento commutes are getting much worse, especially for state workers. Help is on the way. Sacramento Bee

Built in 1833, this historic building reportedly served as the site of California’s first newspaper, Monterey’s first bakery and the city’s first pottery kiln. There’s also an oak tree on the property planted by Father Junipero Serra, or at least so says the local lore. The Stokes Adobe is now on the market for $3.35 million. Monterey Herald

Fresno in 12 foods: From the chicken pot pie at Grandmarie’s Chicken Pie Shop to the agnolotti pasta at Annex Kitchen made with Fresno State corn (only sold when said corn is in season), these are the quintessentially Fresno foods to eat when you’re in town. Fresno Bee

Highway 50 to Lake Tahoe will be closed for two weeks. Here’s the detour map. East Bay Times


Los Angeles: sunny, 90. San Diego: sunny, 82. San Francisco: sunny, 70. San Jose: partly sunny, 79. Sacramento: partly sunny, 92. More weather is here.


“The beauty of the landscape is without comparison so that even a hard-boiled European like me is overwhelmed.”

— -Theodor Adorno, writing home from California in November 1941

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Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments, complaints, ideas and unrelated book recommendations to Julia Wick. Follow her on Twitter @Sherlyholmes.