(KTVU) Oakland - This is the Ghost Ship Trial blog by KTVU crime reporter Henry Lee and KTVU staff. Check back here for continuous updates on the case.
May 23, 5 p.m.
The trial resumes Tuesday after the Memorial Day holiday. There are never any court sessions on Fridays, and court is closed on Monday.
Former tenant Carmen Brito wept from the stand as she described escaping the warehouse.
Relatives of fire victims also cried as 911 calls from Brito and others were played in court.
Brito testified that she saw defendant Max Harris running toward the fire and helping people escape.
Brito also told the jury she never thought the warehouse was a fire hazard, especially because of prior visits by police, engines from a nearby fire station rolling past and county CPS workers had signed off on defendant Derick Almena's children living there.
Brito said, "I don't think I have ever lived anywhere with such presence of government officials."
Outside court, defense attorneys for Harris said Brito could just as well have been one of their witnesses, not one called by the DA.
Referring to CPS visits, attorney Tyler Smith said, "They looked thru the place thoroughly, they looked at it closely. They looked and saw it was safe for children. three young children to be living in that space. That was a big part of why she and presumably many others felt safe living there, too."
Former Oakland fire investigator Maria Sabatini wrapped up three days on the stand. She acknowledged to defense attorneys that she could not rule out arson, or the defense theory that Molotov cocktails started the blaze.
Outside court, Los Angeles attorney Andrew Stein, hired to cross-examine Sabatini said, "This was set by someone. Maybe they were high. Maybe they were drunk. Maybe they were angry because they couldn't get upstairs. Maybe it was someone asked them to leave. But this was an intentionally set fire."
Added defense attorney Curtis Briggs: "If this fire was intentionally set, we win."
Briggs said arson fires aren't foreseeable.
"We're looking for reasonable doubt," Briggs said. "We only need to raise a reasonable doubt that fire was an arson and if there's a reasonable doubt, Mr. Harris will be acquitted."
The DA says regardless of the fire's cause, Almena and Harris are responsible for unsafe conditions that trapped the 36 people who died. The defense disagrees.
"There is no legal case in the United States or California that says a tenant or subtenant is responsible for conditions in the building," Stein said. "They are scapegoats for the landlord."
May 22, 5 p.m.
Former Oakland fire investigator Maria Sabatini will be back for more cross-examination on Thursday. She acknowledged to defense attorney Andrew Stein that while she found no evidence of arson, she could not rule out arson as a cause.
Sam Maxwell took the stand this morning. He is now in a wheelchair after being the last one to escape from the fire. He spent five weeks in a coma and another four months in the hospital.
In court, his hands shook. He needed a speech therapist to translate because the fire seared his lungs and damaged his brain.
Maxwell testified that there was a bottleneck of 80 people on the second floor of the warehouse as the fire raged. He said he didn't leave until the bottleneck cleared and after he made sure no one had been trampled.
He told the jury, "Going down the stairs i thought i was going to burn alive...it was scary... I chose death on those stairs rather than choosing an unknown risk."
The defense unsuccessfully tried to keep maxwell off the stand, on the grounds that the jury would be swayed by emotion.
"We're confident that the jury can see the difference in Mr. Maxwell's situation that he's physically in and his testimony, so we're not worried about Mr. Maxwell's testimony," Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Max Harris said outside court.
Earlier this morning, former Oakland fire investigator Maria Sabatini was back on the stand. She testified that authorities couldn't determine the cause of the fire - and found no signs of Molotov cocktails or arson, which the defense says is what started it
Outside court, Los Angeles attorney Andrew Stein, who was brought in specifically to cross-examine sabatini, says he's trying to prove "that she's incompetent, that she's hiding the truth, and she's trying to protect the city."
Stein says Sabatini had been in the Ghost Ship two years before the tragedy while investigating an arson fire.
"She walked into the building, and she saw people living there, and she did nothing about it," Stein said.
May 21, 8 p.m.
There have been quite a few new faces in court, including a new attorney brought in specifically to cross-examine Maria Sabatini, retired Assistant Fire Marshal of the Oakland Fire Department.
The attorney, Andrew M. Stein of Bellflower (Los Angeles County), is part of Max Harris' defense team. In court today, the tall, bearded Stein was introduced to the jury by Curtis Briggs, another attorney for Harris.
Stein peppered Sabatini with demands to answer questions "yes or no." He subtly signaled his displeasure with some of Sabatini longer answers by responding, "I appreciate that, but.."
Stein was admitted to the State Bar of California in 1979. He's not the most veteran attorney on the defense side; that honor goes to Tony Serra, who was admitted in 1962.
There have been some folks sitting in on the trial to watch the attorneys at work. Tom Bates, who served as Berkeley mayor, a State Assemblymember and Alameda County supervisor, was there to watch his son, prosecutor Casey Bates. The elder Bates admitted to me that this was the first time he saw his son in court.
Briggs' parents have also been in the court gallery in the past couple of days.
And the relatives of many Ghost Ship victims have been a daily presence at the trial.
Attorneys today haggled over what exactly was the address for the ill-fated Ghost Ship warehouse.
City records say it was located at 1315 31st Ave. in Oakland's Fruitvale District.
But defense attorneys for Derick Almena and Max Harris, now on trial for involuntary manslaughter, introduced a lease by the landlord Chor Ng with the address 1309 31st Ave.
Why could that be important?
Oakland planning and building official David Harlan told the jury that he could find no records of a permit for what would become the ghost ship after 1951, when it was a dairy creamery.
Harlan testified that any changes to the building, such as plumbing or electrical improvements, would have required permits at the request of a licensed contractor or agent of the landlord
Outside court, Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris said, "The Ng family subdivided that plot into about seven or eight different rentable spaces, never told the city about it, never had one inspection, never got one permit pulled. So ultimately if there was any liability for these deaths because nobody pulled the permit, it should be the Ng family."
Also on the stand was retired Oakland Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini. An investigation by Oakland fire and the ATF failed to find the cause.
But she debunked a defense theory, saying she found no signs of Molotov cocktails or arson. She said investigators did conclude that the fire started near the back of the warehouse - and quickly engulfed the building.
Sabatini testified, "There was a fire load of wood, partitions, trailers, all manner of material that would have contributed significantly to the fire's spread."
Briggs called Sabatini a "useless witness for the government."
"This is the first prosecution in the history of America where people have been prosecuted for a fire and they didn't find the cause of it," he said. "So her testimony is going to be underwhelming."
May 20, 4 p.m.
David Harlan, engineering manager for the city of Oakland's planning and building department, took the stand this afternoon. He said the warehouse was zoned for storage, not for residential use or "assemblies," or large gatherings.
He said the only permit on file for the building on 31st Avenue dated back to 1951, when it was a dairy creamery. Under questioning by prosecutor Casey Bates, Harlan said that any additional construction work in the warehouse would have required permits, such as improving the electricity or plumbing, adding a set of stairs and converting the space into residential living spaces.
Outside court, Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Max Harris, pounced on the revelation about the decades-old permit, saying the prosecution had offered up a new line of questioning for the defense. He said if the previous and current owners hadn't properly obtained proper permits for the building, then his client and master tenant Derick Almena couldn't be expected to be responsible for doing so.
Also today, former tenant Adam Kennon, a carpenter testified that he had "no issues" with the stairs in the warehouse that have been the subject of intense prosecutorial scrutiny. "The stairs were fine," he said.
Asked by the defense if he thought the warehouse was a fire danger, he said no, adding at least not before the deadly fire. "Hindsight is 20-20, you know," Kennon said. He also testified that he had hung at least two smoke detectors in his space in the warehouse. They each contained batteries that didn't need to be replaced for five years, he said.
Dr. Michael Ferenc was the third forensic pathologist on the stand. He too said that of the autopies he conducted, all the victims died of smoke inhalation.
San Francisco police Officer William Bardsley testified that he was an Oakland police sergeant in December 2014, when he responded to the warehouse to investigate reports of a battery. Bardsley testified that a tenant was arrested while Almena was cited and released for battery .
Week 3 of testimony in the Ghost Ship trial began with weeping on the witness stand by Alexis Abrams-Bourke, whose boyfriend Nick Walrath was among the 36 people who died in the fire.
She burst into tears when asked to describe who Walrath was. “He was my partner,” she said.
At 9:22 p.m. the night of the fire, Walrath texted her, “Wow I just uncovered a whole new level of underground Oakland music LOL involving having to call a phone number and listen to a voice mail for the address of an event :)”
She said she then received a text from Walrath at 11:25 p.m. that said, “I love you.”
That same minute, he sent a second text that said simply, “Fire.”
Abrams-Bourke told the jury she thought he meant there was a bonfire at the music event.
A second witness, Alexa Burrell testified that her friend Nicole Siegrist was one of the victims.
Siegrist texted, “There’s a fire here” at 11:23 p.m. “I thought she was referencing a bonfire,” Burrell said.
Burrell said she arrived at the warehouse about five minutes after the text. “The building was just swallowed in flames,” she said.
May 16, 4 p.m.
Week 2 of testimony has concluded. The trial resumes on Monday, as there are no court sessions on Fridays.
Battalion Chief James Bowron was on the stand today. He echoed another battalion chief's assertions that he would not have done anything differently and that he believes the fire was not survivable from the beginning.
Bowron acknowledged that upon his arrival the night of the fire, he received reports from bystanders that anywhere from 50 to 75 people were inside the warehouse. But he said he didn't know exactly where they were, nor did he ask, as he said his priority was to get hose lines inside the building to put the fire out.
HIs crews didn't see anyone 40 feet from the front door, which at the time he believed was the only way out. He said people tend to exit the same way they go in.
He also said the victims were in the "worst possible place" they could be in a fire. They were trapped on an upper floor that really wasn't the second floor but was actually a mezzanine. So the victims were stuck on an upper landing, surrounded by smoke that billowed up to the ceiling and then flowed downward. he said.
On cross-examination, Tony Serra, an attorney for Almena, accused Bowron of refusing to criticize the Fire Department response out of fear of liability in a civil suit in which the city of Oakland has been named the defendant. Bowron denied the allegation, saying his purpose was to tell the jury what happened that night.
Oakland police Officer Jonathan Low told jurors that he responded to several calls for service at the Ghost Ship warehouse in the years before the deadly fire. Master tenant Derick Almena repeatedly denied that anyone lived there, Low said.
During one visit about two yeras before the fire, Low said he responded to check on the well-being of Almena's children. Low said he went inside the warehouse, looked inside a refrigerator and concluded the kids had food, shelter and clothing and "seemed happy."
Retired Oakland police Officer Tye Kushner told the jury he visited the warehouse in 2014 to investigate a dispute. Kushner's body-cam video captured him looking inside and remarking, "You got some cool stuff in here" But Kushner said he didn't realize people lived inside, because the building "looked like a warehouse.
Brian Getz, an attorney for Derick Almena asked both officers if either had ever cited anyone for illegally living in a warehouse. They said no.
While questioning Low, Getz asked the officer if he knew the penal code section for illegally living in the warehouse.
"No," Low said.
"Do you know if it's a misdemeanor or an infraction?" Getz asked.
"No," Low replied.
"I don't either!" Getz said, drawing an objection from prosecutor Casey Bates on argumentative grounds.
"I also thought..." Getz began.
"Objection!" Bates said preemptively. A heartbeat later, he said, "Withdrawn, sorry."
With a small smile, Judge Trina Thompson told Bates to wait for the entire question to be asked before objecting.
Outside court, Getz said, "Let's pretend that Almena had spoken 100 percent truthfully and said ,'Pff-yeah! We're living here.' What difference would it make? These police officers never in their career have arrested somebody for living in a warehouse - nor should they."
Also on the stand was Ivan Mairesse, who escaped from the fire. He testified that the stairs were unsteady and uneven. Many of the victims died on the second floor.
May 15, 4 p.m.
Battalion Chief Heather Mozdean of the Oakland Fire Department took the stand today, saying she and her crew from Station 13 - just a block away - responded to the Ghost Ship fire.
She introduced dramatic helmet-cam footage from a fellow firefighter who went into the warehouse. The firefighter yelled "Hey, is anybody in there?" but got no response.
In fact, the 15-minute video was eerily silent and featured darkness and lots of smoke and the occasional orange glow of flames. There were no cries of help and no rescues.
Outside court, Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Max Harris, suggested that lives could have been saved had firefighters ventured further into the warehouse - or asked passersby for more details on the victims' whereabouts.
But through tears, Mozdean testified that she had gone over what happened "a million times" in her head.
She said, "There's not a single thing we could have done, from my perspective, that would have changed the outcome. That is really hard for me."
Tony Serra, an attorney for Derick Almena, drew repeated, heated objections from prosecutor Casey Bates as he questioned the battalion chief, suggesting that she charged in without caring about how many people were inside and that firefighters "let them die."
Hotly, Mozdean told Serra that under his ideal scenario, she and the three others in her crew should have immediately asked all the bystanders for a complete picture of what was happening, gone inside, opened up the roof, set up a ladder truck on the second floor, all within five minutes. That simply wasn't possible, she said.
Also on the stand today was Chris Farstad, who attended the music event the night of the fire. Farstad works at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco. Under questioning by the DA, he said the DeYoung has fire safety measures, unlike the Ghost Ship.
Outside court, Brigg said, "The inference there is that it's got a $100 million-a-year budget and the artists at the Ghost Ship were practically homeless and making the best of their circumstances. They couldn't afford a $20,000 sprinkler system. Nor were they ever told they needed one."
Late this afternoon, Oakland police Officer Jonathan Low began his testimony, and introduced body-cam video showing Almena repeatedly telling officers in the years before the fire that no one lived at the warehouse.
May 14, 4 p.m.
Capt. George Freelen of the Oakland Fire Department took the stand, telling jurors that in 2014 he was a fire lieutenant Station 13, located just around the corner from the Ghost Ship warehouse.
He said he and his crew stopped by the warehouse for a "pre-planning" visit in 2014 after a small arson fire outside the warehouse, hoping to take a look inside to prepare for any fire that could break out on the property. He said he found material that was "in some areas floor to ceiling."
"You have fire load and material above where you normally find it, so you might have different fire behavior from that material," Freelen testified.
He said he was so concerned by safety issues that he asked the Fire Department's fire prevention division for information as to the warehouse's proper use. He said he never got a response.
Freelen said he spoke with Almena during the 2014 visit. Almena said no one lived in the building and that it was an "art collective," Freelen testified.
Prosecutor Autrey James asked the captain if he believed the warehouse was unsafe at the time of the visit. "From what I saw, yes," Freelen responded.
Freelen became emotional as he described how he and his crew were tasked with removing victims after the fire. "It's been a humbling experience," he said. "It was challenging." He said he went through therapy after the ordeal.
On cross-examination, Curtis Briggs, and attorney for Max Harris, accused the captain of being evasive in his answers. Freelen acknowledged that he was the highest-ranking member of the Fire Department to have set foot in the warehouse before the tragedy.
Former Ghost Ship tenant David Calvera wept as he was asked to identify Max Harris and Derick Almena in court. The questions are typicaly asked of witnesses: do you see (defendant) in court today? Can you tell us what he (or she) is wearing?"
Only this time, Calvera said it was difficult to see Harris and Almena in their current situation. He told the jury neither he nor his girlfriend, who lived with him, were in the warehouse at the time of the fire because of their jobs.
Calvera described the warehouse as "something in between Swiss Family Robinson" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" but said he never felt unsafe in the building. In fact, he said, he believed living in the city was safer than living in the woods, as he has done in the past, surviving several wildfires.
He said he visited the warehouse after the fire and could see the outlines of where one of the victims likely died. That image has haunted him ever since, he said. "It really messed with my head," he said, sniffling and dabbing at his eyes with tissues.
Judge Trina Thompson and the attorneys repeatedly asked if he needed a break, but he declined, saying, "I know this is important."
He said sorry at one point, prompting Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris to respond, "It's OK. You don't have to apologize."
Musician Aaron Marin, who was a guest at the Ghost Ship and escaped from the fire, has finished his testimony.
Under both direct- and cross-examination, Marin told the jury, “I wouldn’t have smoked a cigarette in there” before adding, “I wouldn’t smoke in any building.”
He said there was a designated smoking area in the back of the building, which was accessible past a door with an exit sign. Asked by prosecutor Autrey James if that exit sign lit up, Marin said he couldn’t recall. He said he didn’t know if the sign was actually a license plate or something else that had the word “EXIT” painted on it.
The original 9-woman, 3-man jury remains intact, but there is one less alternate juror. One of them was removed because of “veracity” issues, Judge Trina Thompson has said without elaborating.
Among those in the gallery this morning was San Francisco attorney Mary Alexander, who is representing a number of families of Ghost Ship victims in litigation that includes the city of Oakland, PG&E and the building landlords as defendants. None of them have been criminally charged.
May 13, 10:30 a.m.
Former Ghost Ship tenant Robert “Bob” Mule is on the stand this morning. An artist, Mule testified that he moved into the warehouse about a year before the fire and said the house rules included a mandate “to be unconditionally awesome” and not to smoke or use open flame.
Asked by prosecutor Autrey James if there had been any parties there with the exception of the music event the night of the the deadly fire, Mule said there were “get-togethers” and birthday celebrations for tenants.
Mule said he turned over his rent money to defendant Max Harris
Jose Avalos, another former tenant, finished his testimony.
Under cross-examination by Brian Getz, an attorney for Derick Almena, Avalos said Oakland police officers knew that people were living at the warehouse.
He said Officer Bryant Del Campo often stopped by the Ghost Ship to see how everyone was doing. The officer knew many people by name, at one point asking, “How is my good friend Derick doing?” Avalos testified.
He said police intervened in a dispute with tenant Shelley Mack, whom Almena wanted out. Avalos said police noted that she and others who lived there still had tenants’ rights and essentially couldn’t be tossed out onto the street.
May 9, 4:30 p.m.
The trial resumes Monday, as there are no court sessions on Fridays. During a closed-door hearing after Thursday's session, an alternate juror was excused and replaced by another alternate. The original 9-woman, 3-man jury remains intact.
May 9, 2:45 p.m.
The jury heard from two former tenants of the Ghost Ship today.
Jose Avalos broke down on the stand as he described his harrowing escape from the warehouse. He said a told a woman with blonde hair - a guest at the building that night - to follow him out of the inferno, but he lost sight of her.
“Why did you lose sight of her?” asked prosecutor Autrey James.
“Because I didn’t grab her, he said weeping. His head bowed, Avalos repeatedly dabbed at his eyes with a tissue. His continued crying led Judge Trina Thompson to call for the afternoon recess about a 20 minutes earlier than usual.
Earlier, Avalos testified that he paid rent to defendant Max Harris, a friend of his. He said he never felt the warehouse was unsafe.
In the morning, Jennifer Turner testified that she stayed at the warehouse for only three weeks in 2014. The warehouse was filled with junk and too loud in the middle of the night, she testified. She said she slept in her car a couple of times.
May 9, 7 a.m.
Since testimony began last week, the jury has heard from two forensic pathologists who handled about half of the 36 autopsies of the Ghost Ship fire victims.
After Wednesday's court hearing, Brian Getz, the other defense attorney for master tenant Derick Almena, told Judge Trina Thompson that he had something to say. It might have been the first time he's piped up, at least in open court and outside the presence of the jury.
Getz said he hadn't said anything earlier but that he now wished to object to any future prosecution's questioning of any remaining forensic pathologists, on the grounds of state Evidence Code Section 352. That statute allows a judge to exclude evidence of "its probative value is substantially outweighed by the probability that its admission will a) necessitate undue consumption of time or b) create substantial danger of undue prejudice, of confusing the issues, or of misleading the jury."
In other words, Getz said he's worried that the detailed questioning about autopsies might belabor the whole issue and unduly influence the jury against Almena.
The direct examination of Dr. Thomas Rogers was extremely detailed, with the DA showing pictures and names of each victim as Rogers spoke about how each victim died of smoke inhalation and what percentage of carboxyhemoglobin they had in their blood. A normal human being might have 3 percent, but the fire victims had figures that were far higher, like in the 50-percent range.
Dr. Judy Melinek said one victim had a carboxyhemoglobin level of 81 percent, the highest she's ever seen. Her sobering summation of smoke inhalation: "It's a very stressful way to die," as victims frequently are choking, gagging, coughing and vomiting in hopes of clearing their airway. Add the fact that it's dark, and the victims were likely even more disoriented. Death would have been within seconds or minutes. Those who fell unconscious were still breathing in the toxic smoke, she said.
During the testimony by Rogers and Melinek, families members of the victims wept from the gallery.
Outside court, Almena's chief attorney Tony Serra said the defense had nothing against the forensic pathologists. Rogers is a veteran who has testified countless times in court. Melinek formerly worked in New York and was hired there just months before the Sept. 11. 2001 terrorist attacks.
Serra said the defense recognizes that there has to be testimony about each victim's death. The defense could have stipulated to all that, he said. But Getz indicated there has to be some kind of limit.
May 8, 1 p.m.
Former Oakland Assistant Fire Marshal Cesar Avila took the stand on Day 3 of testimony in the Ghost Ship trial.
Avila, who is now with the Alameda County Fire Department, testified that buildings like the warehouse that burned should have been brought up to code, with safety measures like fire alarms and sprinklers, especially if people were living in the building.
The DA says master tenant Derick Almena, as the leaseholder, was responsible for making sure the building was safe. The defense disagrees.
"We're trying to say that it is a mountain of regulations that Max Harris, or any other citizen of Oakland, would never have even known to the degree of specificity that the district attorney is alleging," Harris' attorney Curtis Briggs said outside court.
Almena's attorney tony serra says firefighters had stopped by the warehouse several times before the fire and never objected to what they saw, nor did they issue any citations.
"They looked at it, and they OK'd it," Serra said outside court. He said no firefighter ever said, "Hey man you're not in compliance."
Serra added, "They never did anything. The Fire Department failed in its duty and responsibilities."
Serra says the landlord, not almena, had the money to make the necessary changes, but never did. That landlord isn't criminally charged.
May 7, 4 p.m.
Rodney Griffin, a construction worker whom Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena had once considered to make changes to the building, said Almena rebuffed his $3,000 estimate to build a staircase in the building. Almena said he could do it for cheaper, Griffin said.
Griffin testified that he told Almena that the warehouse was a "deathtrap." Almena laughed, said "haha" and said they should call it the "Satya Yuga Deathtrap," referring to the name of the art collective.
At one point before the deadly fire, Griffin, a former firefighter, said he paid a visit to the Oakland fire station around the corner from the warehouse to share his concerns. They told him they were aware of it, Griffin said, bolstering the defense's contention that the city of Oakland bears some responsibility for not stepping in to address safety concerns.
"They seemed to brush it off," Griffin testified, citing firefighters' "nonchalantness." "They acted like it was control," he said, adding he spoke up out of concern for Almena's three children, who lived in the warehouse. Griffin said he considered them his own children.
"I did the best I could," he said.
The first witness of the day was Dr. Thomas Rogers, a veteran forensic pathologist who performed autopsies on nine of the 36 victims of the Ghost Ship fire. He said all of the victims he examined died of smoke inhalation.
As he described how each person died, prosecutors displayed pictures of the victim on a screen with his or her name. That drew objections from the defense. But prosecutor Casey Bates noted that both sides had just stipulated, or agreed, to the names and photos of the victims in question. Judge Trina Thompson overruled the defense objection.
The next witness was Ryan O’Keefe, who said he and defendant Max Harris has taken up positions at the door of the Ghost Ship warehouse on the night of the fire. They were suggesting that people arriving for an unpermitted music event donate $10.
Asked to describe the fire, O’Keefe said, “It was small I thought it was a toaster fire. But within five seconds it exploded into an inferno. It looked like an explosion. That’s how fast it happened.”
The smoke moved faster than the fire and was “viscous. It had a sparkle to it like graphite,” he said.
In a bid to debunk the defense theory that the blaze was the result of arson by a group of strangers started the fire with Molotov cocktails, prosecutor Autrey James pointedly asked O’Keefe if he had seen anyone suspicious light the fire with Molotov cocktails.
“No,” he said. He said the mood was “jovial, happy” and that no one seemed angry, although he joked that he had been angry about having to man the entrance.
He said he knew 90 percent of those who died in the fire.
May 6, 4 p.m.
Testimony resumes Tuesday. The prosecution revealed that Robert Jacobitz, an electrician who testified at the preliminary hearing two years ago, died yesterday in an accident yesterday in San Pablo. His testimony will likely be read into the record.
Former Ghost Ship tenant Elizabeth Mazzola testified that she loved there for a short time and escaped from the fire after seeing a “huge wall of fire.”
She said she didn’t notice any smoke alarms or sprinklers going off. She described defendant Max Harris as the “go-between” person who accepted tenants’ rent.
She said she didn’t notice any strangers around at the time of the fire, in a blow to the defense theory that arsonists set fire to the warehouse.
On cross-examination, Mazzola said she never felt unsafe living in the warehouse, nor did she think it was a fire hazard. “No, not at the time,” she said.
She broke down as she described to Almena’s attorney Tony Serra having interacted with Almena’s children.
On re-direct, Mazzola was asked by prosecutor Autrey James if, knowing wha she knows now, if she would live in the warehouse. That led to numerous objections from Serra.
When the attorneys were done sparring,
Mazzola said, “That’s just such a strange question I don’t think I can answer that question.”
“Next question,” Judge Trina Thompson told James.
May 6, 10:30 a.m.
The prosecution called its first witness, Carol Cidlik of Hawaii, the mother of Ghost Ship fire victim Nicole Siegrist. The defense had filed a motion objecting to this witness on the grounds that her testimony right off the bat would be unduly “tugging at the heartstrings” of jurors. In arguments outside the presence of the jury, Max Harris’ attorney Tyler Smith said the jury might “misdirect the pain, anguish and even anger” onto his client. Judge Trina Thompson allowed Cidlik’s testimony but with limitations.
Cidlik’s time on the stand was short. Prosecutor Autrey James showed her a photo of Siegrist and asked if she recognized her. Cidlik immediately weeping and said, “Yes, my daughter.”
She testified that she received a text from her daughter at 11:23 p.m. that read, “I’m gonna die now.”
It was clear from a screen grab of Cidlik’s phone that was projected on the screen that she didn’t realize the gravity of the situation. In reply, she wrote her daughter, “Going to sleep for the day. It’s 11:30. Good night love you Nicole.”
Neither defense attorney asked Cidlik any questions.
The second witness was Nicholas “Nico” Bouchard, who co-signed the lease with Derick Almena. Bouchard testified that he tried to get out of the lease after becoming concerned that Almena was making unauthorized changes to the warehouse, including making a 20-by-20 foot hole on the second floor to allow the hoisting of pianos inside.
Outside the jury’s presence, there were some fireworks after another attorney for Harris, Curtis Briggs, accused prosecutor Casey Bates of misconduct for accusing him of creating “bullshit” after the defense objected to Cidlik’s testimony.
Briggs complained to the judge, but she sternly warned all the attorneys that she wasn’t there to monitor attorneys’ behavior or attitudes and that she expects everyone to act professionally.
May 1, 10:45 a.m.
Jurors will begin hearing testimony on Monday, May 6.
Tony Serra, an attorney for Derick Almena, told jurors in his opening statement today that his client was not a “tyrant” or “cult leader” or “manipulator of truth” as some might portray him. Instead, Serra said, Almena is, at heart, an artist who strove to create a safe haven at the Ghost Ship for those to express themselves. Serra compared the warehouse to a museum or the Louvre.
“The Ghost Ship was not a a fire trap,” Serra said. “It was something aesthetic. It was my client’s vision.”
Serra, like Max Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs yesterday, also said the fire was the result of an arson, suggesting that someone hurled Molotov cocktails in the warehouse.
“The arson was not foreseeable,” Serra said. My client did everything possible to make the premises safe.”
Serra ended his remarks by showing jurors a portrait of Almena with his wife and their three children.
April 30, 3:40 p.m.
Court has recessed for the day. The judge did not announce anything on the record as to any alleged improper communication with jurors.
Tony Serra will providence his opening statement at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. Court will be dark until Monday, when jurors will begin hearing testimony from witnesses.
The reason for the delay? Judge Trina Thompson has jury duty on Thursday, and court is dark on Fridays.
April 30, 3:10 p.m.
Judge Trina Thompson is holding a closed-door hearing over alleged unauthorized communication with jurors, apparently by someone in the gallery. It's unclear if the incident happened in the courtroom, somewhere else in the courthouse or somewhere outside the building. The judge told those in the gallery that future recurrences could lead to closing the trial to the public, which she said is not in anyone’s interest.
Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Max Harris, has finished his opening statement. He told jurors that they will hear evidence that the fire was the result of arson.
He said those who started the fire are not on trial and that the landlords are not on trial.
Several times during his opening statement, prosecutors objected on relevancy grounds, leading the judge to warn Briggs that he could only touch on issues that he believed the evidence would show.
Briggs described his client as a servant and as a “Cinderella” who collected rent, if only to prevent those who stayed at the warehouse from being evicted by the landlords. He characterized the Ng family as landlords who only cared about getting their monthly rent.
“The evidence will show that he is being prosecuted for loving those people enough, to make sure they paid the rent so they wouldn’t get kicked out,” Briggs said.
April 30, 11:40 a.m.
The trial is in recess until 2 p.m., at which point the defense for Max Harris will give an opening statement.
Prosecutor Casey Bates played Oakland police body-cam video that showed Almena repeatedly telling officers responding to various calls at the warehouse that nobody lived there and that artists signed contracts agreeing that they were only working on their craft at the collective.
Bates showed text messages from victims who reached out to loved ones before they died.
One victim wrote, “I’m going to die.”
Another wrote, “I love you. Fire.”
April 30, 11:00 a.m.
In presenting the overview of his case to the jury, Bates indicated that he would be calling to testify a contractor, Rodney Griffin, who was initially hired by Almena to make changes to the warehouse. Bates said Griffin had recommended a fire door and additional stairs, but that Almena disagreed and went on to hire a different contractor/electrician, with no contractors liscense.
Six months later, when Griffin returned and saw the warehouse, he described it as a "death trap" and said the warehouse had no fire extinguishers, no smoke alarms, no smoke detectors and some of the windows had bars on them.
Bates also showed the jury evidence to show defendant, Max Harris's role as "creative director" of the Ghost Ship. He showed copies of correspondence Harris had written, in which he called himself the "executive director" of the collective. Bates said Harris was in charge of collecting rents, creating subleases, evicting tenants and producing events, like the unpermitted party underway the night of the fire.
Bates also showed the jury pictures of the warehouse transformed into an illegal residence. The photos of the cluttered interior showed the place packed with pianos, organs, sofas and tapestries. "There was not one piece of sheet rock on any of the walls," Bates said. Sheet rock can act as a fire barrier.
The photos also showed two kicthens, one on the first and illegally constructed second floor. Neither had running water. (From KTVU reporter Allie Rasmus)
April 30, 10:30 a.m.
Prosecutor Casey Bates started his opening statement by telling jurors that 36 people died at the Ghost Ship warehouse because there was “no notice of smoke or flame, no time to escape the smoke, there was no adequate exits. No notice. No time. No exits.”
Bates then showed on a screen pictures of each victim. Each victim represented a count for involuntary manslaughter.
“All died because there was no notice. There was no time. There was no exit.”
The prosecutor showed jurors a picture of the lease defendant Derick Almena signed in 2013, under which the warehouse was only to be used as an art collective and not for any other purpose, including subletting it for residential use. Rent was to be paid each month to the Ng family in the amount of $4,500.
Co-defendant Max Harris collected rent from tenants and paid the Ngs each month, Bates said.
A man who co-signed the lease with Almena tried unsuccessfully to get out of the lease when he realized Almena was drastically changing how the warehouse was going to be used with no regard for the permitting process or getting permission from the landlord, Bates said, adding Almena vowed to make the changes he wanted “cheaper” and “better.”
Almena laughed off concerns that the warehouse was a “death trap,” even saying at one point it should be called the “Satya Yuga death trap,” referring to the name of his art collective, the prosecutor said.
April 29, noon:
Judge Trina Thompson of Alameda County Superior Court has empaneled a racially diverse jury of nine women and 3 men in the Ghost Ship trial. The judge also lifted a gag order that had been in place during jury selection.
Tony Serra, a defense attorney for Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, says the jury is diverse for other reasons: "We have age, we have wisdom of older people, we have the exuberance and idealism of young people. It's a rainbow, it's a coalition."
Serra and Tyler Smith, an attorney for co-defendant Max Harris, the creative director of the art collective, both said their clients will take the stand during the trial.
Opening statements are scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday April 30, in Dept. 9 at the Rene C. Davidson Courthouse.