Lawyers for the two men charged in the 2016 Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36 people said Friday they are preparing for a trial in which they will try to shift blame for the blaze from their clients to others, including the building’s owner and government officials.
Derick Almena, 48, and Max Harris, 28, appeared briefly in an Oakland courtroom Friday for the first time since a judge scuttled a plea deal agreed to by prosecutors. They were ordered back to court in three weeks to schedule a trial.
Outside court, the men’s lawyers say there’s plenty of blame to share for the Dec. 2, 2016, fire in an Oakland warehouse called the Ghost Ship, which was illegally converted into an underground entertainment venue and live-work space for artists. The cause of the fire has never been determined, which the lawyers said is a key part of the men’s defense.
“It could have been arson,” Almena’s lawyer, Tony Serra, said. “It could have been started by the guy next door. Who knows?”
Serra also said numerous government officials visited the warehouse before the fire, and they had a duty to report the building’s condition to authorities. Almena lived in the warehouse with his wife and three children and were visited by Alameda County’s Child Protective Services officials several times. Oakland police officers were also called to the warehouse on several occasions to investigate noise complaints and tenant disputes, among other issues.
In addition, Oakland’s Fire Department acknowledged that it failed to inspect the warehouse annually as required.
“The city’s negligence was criminal,” said Curtis Briggs, Harris’ lawyer.
City spokeswoman Karen Boyd didn’t return phone and email inquiries Friday.
The lawyers also said they would seek to have the trial moved from Oakland because of intensive local media coverage.
Judge James Cramer last week rejected a plea deal that called for Almena to get a nine-year prison sentence and Harris to receive a six-year term.
Cramer rejected the deal after listening to grieving families of victims testify for two days about their losses. Many of them angrily denounced the proposed sentences as too lenient, though Cramer said he was rejecting the plea deal because Almena failed to show adequate remorse.
Since then, Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy O’Malley has said that her office will not discuss any more plea deals and requested a trial be scheduled as soon as possible. She said she was swayed by the families’ unhappiness with the deal and their desire for a trial.
“The grief of the families, the pain and shock of the community by the senseless and tragic deaths of 36 individuals caused by a fire that roared through the warehouse is as strong and deep today as it was in December 2016,” O’Malley wrote. “These lives were lost at the hands of the two defendants.”
Prosecutors left court Friday without comment. District attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick didn’t return an email inquiry Friday.
Almena rented the Oakland warehouse and turned it into a death trap, the district attorney said when charges were filed last year. He is accused of filling the warehouse with highly flammable furniture, art pieces and other knickknacks that made it difficult for new visitors to quickly find exits. Almena hired Harris to help manage the facility by collecting rent and booking concerts, among other duties.
They are the only people facing criminal charges for the deadliest structure fire in the U.S. since 100 people died in a Rhode Island nightclub fire in 2003.