(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.
July 16, 3 p.m.
Today was the last day of testimony in the Ghost Ship trial, and there was plenty of drama both inside and outside the courtroom.
After testimony wrapped at about 11:30 a.m., a dustup erupted between family members of victims and Danielle Silva, a supporter of defendant Max Harris who befriended him after the deadly fire.
The dispute happened after family members gave interviews with the media outside courthouse. As is her custom, Silva was outside, listening to the interviews. But relatives of the dead took issue with her presence and referred to the ubiquituous "Free Max" stickers that have popped up in the area.
Silva tried to explain herself.
"I hope that we can have safety in our community and prevent anything like this from happening further," Silva said.
Grace Lovio, who lost her partner Jason McCarty in the fire, retorted, "So that's why we need Max Harris locked up, so we can have safety in our communities. Both of them."
"That's not true," Silva replied.
David Gregory, whose daughter Michela died in the fire, yelled, "You don't even know him!"
"I do know him."
"No, you didn't know him before!"
The exchange capped an eventful day on the stand.
"This is the last day of evidence!" Tony Serra, an attorney for Derick Almena proclaimed afterward.
Oakland police Officer Hector Chavez testified that in March 2015, almost two years before the deadly fire, he cleared out a rave at the warehouse, where he was told people paid $25 to get in and did drugs and drank alcohol.
On his body-cam video, which was played for the jury, Chavez repeatedly bangs on the front door of the warehouse. After a long delay, a woman can be heard saying chirpily, "Just a moment!"
After someone opened the door, the officer's body-cam captured a scuffle.
"Hey! Hey! You're hurting my leg...do not push the door! You're hurting my leg!" Chavez yells at a man previously identfieid as the party promoter.
The promoter responds, "Yo dude, you're hurting me! You don't care if you hurt me, only if I hurt you."
Defense attorneys accused Chavez of lying when the officer testified Harris was among those he confronted at the front door.
In response, Harris took thestand for the 2nd time, saying it wasn't him. And freeze-frame from the officer's own video appears to show someone else.
"With all due respect, I don't know how to say this, other than Officer Chavez looked like an idiot," Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris, told reporters.
Another attorney for Harris, Tylper Smith said, "It was a great opportunity for max to get back up on the stand, show the jury his soft demeanor, let them hear his voice."
Prosecutors believe defendant Derick Almena made it all up when he told the jury that the landlord's son told him in an email to lie and say no one lived at the warehouse.
DA's Inspector Cinda Stoddard testified that Almena never brought this up in interviews with investigators, nor in emails they reviewed.
"Then I said, well is it possible it could have been verbal? Yeesss. Is it possible it could have been over the phone? Yeesss," Serra said.
But family members of victims say the da's case is strong
"In my opinion, they presented a case that's strong enough to be won," Gregory said. "I just hope the jury will pay attention to all the lives that were told during this trial.
Closing arguments will begin July 29 and could take several days. Between now and then, attorneys will be meeting regularly with Judge Trina Thompson to go over exhibits, motions and jury instructions.
July 15, 1 p.m.
The trial ended early for the day, at about 11:30 a.m., after the jury heard from several rebuttal witnesses called by the prosecution. The case resumes Tuesday morning with two final DA witnesses.
The first witness Monday was Oakland police Officer Michael Ericksen, who was valedictorian of his academy class in 2014. Ericksen testified that he and his training Officer Richard Kane responded to the Ghost Ship warehouse in September 2014, when someone lit a sofa outside the warehouse on fire during a series of arson blazes.
Ericksen said he met defendant Derick Almena outside the warehouse. The interaction was captured on the officer's body camera. Ericksen testified that Almena gave him the business card of then-Oakland fire official Maria Sabatini, who had responded to the warehouse to investigate the couch fire.
Sabatini had testified earlier in the trial that she never went inside the warehouse. Other witnesses, including Almena and his wife Micah Allison, testified that she had, and even saw a religious statue inside the building and crossed herself.
In court Monday, Ericksen confirmed that the fire appeared to have only scorched the couch and the outside wall without penetrating inside the building, suggesting there would have been no need for investigators to go inside.
ATF agent Whitney Hameth testified about an interviews she conducted with Darold Leite, a contractor and friend of Almena who lived at the Ghost Ship. In a boost to the defense theory that the deadly fire was the result of arson, Leite previously testified that he heard bottles breaing and an argument in the warehouse before seeing seven people dressed in dark clothing running away.
But under questioning by the DA, Hameth said Leite hadn't mentioned any of that in his interviews with the ATF. Hameth said Leite only said that the electricity went out and that he went outside after hearing voices. She said Leite also never mentioned hearing any "popping" noises.
Curtis Briggs, an attorney for defendant Max Harris, suggested in his questioning that Hameth was one of the newer, more inexperienced ATF agents on scene. He insinuated that Hameth simply never asked Leite specifically about hearing any glass breaking or sounds of a fight.
DA's Inspector Paul Balzouman, a former Oakland police officer, testified that he's been assigned the case from the very beginning. He said after Harris was arrested in Los Angeles, the defendant spoke with Balzouman, Inspector Greg Hughes and a third inspector. During that interview, Harris testified only that he did go back into the building after the fire broke out to retrieve a laptop, not his cell phone as Harris had said from the stand.
Harris' voice was also not among the 911 callers who reported the blaze, Balzouman said.
The inspector also testified that immediately after the fire, he spoke with Almena at the Red Cross. Almena said he had put Harris in charge of the music event the night of the fire and that Harris, because of his younger age, would be able to relate better to those attending the event.
July 11, 5 p.m.
The defense for Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena rested today, setting the stage for the prosecution's rebuttal case on Monday. When that is over, closing arguments will begin - but not until July 29, said Judge Trina Thompson.
While being grilled by prosecutor Autrey James today, Almena acknowledged that he signed the lease to the warehouse, set the rent and never got permits or inspections for the changes he made to the building.
Almena has also testified that the landlord's son told to him to deny that anyone lived there. Almena also said contractors he hired were supposed to pull permits.
But James suggested that Almena was lying about those issues because he never mentioned any of that before trial.
Defense attorney Tony Serra repeatedly objected to the DA asking the same questions of his client.
"Let's say 100 questions that he asked 1000 times over and over again," Serra told reporters. "That's why I called it the water-drip torture method."
Almena again tried to blame the landlord Chor Ng and her family, who aren't on trial.
Almena said, "The owners let people live in that building that wasn't inspected for 71 years."
But the prosecutor asked whether any tenants paid the landlords directly or if the Ngs were the ones who moved people in. Almena said no.
"Truthfully, you were the landlords for those people, right?" James asked, as Serra unsuccessfully objected.
Almena: responded, "I rented the space in my name."
The prosecutor accused almena of playing the blame game. Almena responded, "I still don't want to blame anybody." That led to scornful chuckles from family members of victims sitting in the gallery.
But the DA referred to an interview Almena gave to KTVU from jail, in which he says the whole structure of his defense is pointing the blame.
Nevertheless, the defense says they're confident they'll prevail.
"I don't think you know we were damaged severely by the cross examination," Serra said. "I think my client's come out pretty well. I think there's going to be reasonable doubt in the case."
Curtis Briggs, attorney for co-defendant Max Harris agreed, saying, "Considering the magnitude of what's at stake, this is probably the weakest case that's ever moved forward to jury trial, with this level of death and destruction which has occurred."
July 10, 4 p.m.
Jurors were sent home for the day at noon and told to return Thursday morning, after a dispute arose between the prosecution and the defense about a years-old incident involving the son of Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena.
The DA says it's all about attacking Almena's credibility.
But the defense says it's character assassination.
The defense objected to prosecutor Autrey James bringing up an incident in which Almena's son found a used condom after a New Year's party at the warehouse, almost two years before the deadly fire.
On cross-examination today, Almena said a dog had found the condom. But James then played Oakland police body-cam video in which Almena says it was his son who found it.
"He is a minor,' Almena's attorney Tony Serra told reporters outside court. "It is an area that should have remained confidential. It has absolutely nothing to do with this case and, from my perspective, it was a disgrace to bring it up."
The prosecution has been hammering away at Almena's credibility, confronting him repeatedly with inconsistent statements. James accused him of lying in a videotaped interview with investigators after his arrest about having read the details about the proper use of the warehouse under city zoning regulations.
On the stand, Almena said he was trying to be helpful to the DA's inspectors interviewing him and that he was under "duress." He said he had been arrested at gunpoint. But James made clear that Almena the investigators weren't holding him at gunpoint and were simply questioning him.
"I infer that that's part of strategy, you know, to wear him down," Serra said. "Interrogation is a necessity. My client called it 'duress.' "
On cross-examination, Almena acknowledged he never got any permits for the changes he made to the warehouse, nor were there safety devices like sprinklers or audible alarms.
Atorney mary alexander, who's representing families of the victims in civil lawsuits, says Almena isn't doing himself any favors with his testimony.
"What Almena has done by going on the stand is really proven the case against himself," Alexander told KTVU outside court. "But he has also proven that the city knew what was going on in this building."
July 9, 5 p.m.
Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James started his cross-examination of master tenant Derick Almena late this afternoon. He questioned him for about an hour before time was up. James will resume grilling Almena on Wednesday.
Earlier today, Almena got into the meat of his defense, blaming Oakland police and firefighters and the landlord for not flagging him about any safety issues at the warehouse.
Almena said 28 Oakland police officers paid 16 visits to the Ghost Ship. Thirteen firefighters paid five visits, and there were eight inspections by CPS workers.
Almena said two high-ranking oakland firefighters in particular, Capt. George Freelen and retired Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini, weren't telling the truth when they told the jury they never went inside the warehouse before the tragedy.
He testified, "They're good people, and they're lying....of course they're denying it."
Outside court, defense attorney Tony Serra told reporters, "Make no bones about it. We believe that the Fire Department perjured themselves when they said they never went in. My client has itemized where law enforcement and officials have gone in approximately 30 times."
Almena said despite those visits, he never got any notices of fire-code violations and never got any eviction notices.
"They have a responsibility - to us, to the people!"
Serra said. "They're supposed to be there to protect us! They're the ones that are the wall between us and fire insecurity - and they didn't do their job!"
As far as his own responsibility, Almena said be asked tenants to buy safety devices like fire extinguishers, but blamed the landlord for refusing to fund renovations.
Almena denied that the stairs to the second floor were unsafe, saying that 27 teachers who came to the warehouse for a holiday party went up them "in heels and with hot dishes."
Later in the day, James began cross-examining almena. The prosecutor, Almena and the defense all began talking over another, bickering over repeated questions by James. At one point, Serra objected to the prosecutor standing close to his client, accusing James of "harassing" Almena.
"It's like a prize fight," Serra said afterward. "You want to punch your opponent in the nose and make them bleed. My God, they started with de minimis, trivial, extraneous material, like snipping at the peripheral.
Families of victims aren't impressed with Almena
"He said he felt like death. He didn't say, 'Yes, I was responsibe. But he doesn't feel like death because he doesn't know what death is," said Colleen Dolan, who lost her daughter Chelsea Dolan in the fire.
July 8, 5 p.m.
Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena began testifying in his own defense this afternoon and will be back on the stand on Tuesday.
Almena bowed his head, paused - even to spell his last name - and wept shortly after getting on the stand. He said he’s been in solitary confinement for two years.
“I'm just so sad,” he said, adding he also tired and heart-broken.
Asked by his attorney Tony Serra if he had any remorse, Almena said, “There are no words.”
Asked if he had any contrition, Almena said, "I feel death. The loss of life. Forever. Beautiful, beautiful people.”
Almena he always believed the warehouse was safe and was told it was safe. Otherwise, he said, he wouldn't stay there with his family.
Serra says his client connected with the jury.
"I thought he started beautiful," Serra told reporters. While many people may have expected him to be "arrogant and self-centered," Almena took "contemplative pauses" and was genuinely contrite, Serra said.
But all this is with his own attorney. It’s not clear how he’ll do under cross-examination by prosecutors.
"When you put on a client, it’s kind of like having a baby," Serra said. "You don’t know, you know, what’s going to happen. You don’t always know, you know, what cross-examination’s going to be.”
Also on the stand was Darold Leite, a contractor who lived at the Ghost Ship. He testified he heard bottles breaking and an argument in the warehouse before the fire. He said he saw seven people dressed in dark clothing running away.
"So we say these are the people who started the arson, and we say these are the same people who were at the taco stand bragging about it," Serra said.
On cross-examination by prosecutor Casey Bates, Leite acknowledged he’s a convicted felon, with priors for assault with a weapon and receiving stolen property. Bates also insinuated Leite never previously told investigators about the possible arson angle.
Leite testified that firefighters had trouble battling the blaze when they arrived.
"He said that the fire department did come in the back yard. They didn’t have enough hose to get into the building! And when they did try to go to the second floor, in the front, and the ladder got hooked on the wires, and they couldn’t reach it," Serra said.
June 26 5 p.m.
The trial is in recess until Monday July 8.
Tony Serra, an attorney for Derick Almena proclaimed to reporters, "Well today was one of the best days of the trial for the defense!"
Serra spoke after several more witnesses testified as part of Almena's defense.
Oakland firefighter Daniel Keenan testified he helped move his daughter out of the Ghost Ship warehouse in 2013, three years before the deadly fire. He said he never noticed any hazards in the building.
"He's a fire person," Serra said. "He knows what the law is. He knows whether or not, you know, a fire code violation occurred and, in essence, he said it was OK."
Almena's wife Micah Allison finished her testimony after acknowledging to prosecutor Casey Bates on cross-examination that when she referred to a fire escape a day earlier, there was no actual device, just access to the roof of the warehouse.
But overall, Almena's team says Allison did well on the stand.
"My client's wife, you know, finished with large credibility, so I'm thrilled, I'm excited," Serra said.
Also on the stand was musician Thomas Cappel, who testified he, too, visited the Ghost Ship and didn't think it was unsafe. He did acknowledge to the DA that as a musician on tour, he expects the venues he performs at to be safe.
After the jury was dismissed, Serra told Judge Trina Thompson that one of their witnesses, unlicensed contractor Troy Altieri had failed to return to court to finish his testimony. Rather than have an arrest warrant issued, Serra asked that Altieri's previous testimony be stricken from the record.
June 25, 5 p.m.
The wife of Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena took the stand in his defense today, hoping to project a softer image of the man now on trial in the deaths of 36 people.
Micah Allison was called to the witness stand to bring a “feminine perspective” to the case, said Tony Serra, an attorney for Almena.
“She’s on, really, to humanize the defense," Serra told reporters.
The artist and mother of Almena’s three children immediately began weeping as she looked at a picture of her family while on the stand.
“Very potent when a mother and a wife speaks out really on behalf of her husband and their mutual vision. Very powerful to get up there and cry," Serra said.
Allison testified that the idea of the Ghost Ship began when the couple grew tired of hauling or storing art material from place to place. The warehouse, she said was the perfect place to keep pieces of art from around the world and dozens of organs and pianos they took from a shop going out of business.
She said, “When I saw the space and possibilities that were there, I fell in love with it. Yes, I wanted to acquire it."
"She embodies the whole theme and vision of Ghost Ship," Serra said.
The DA repeatedly objected to questions to Allison related to art and music, saying it was irrelevant.
"My God, the DA was objecting to every other question I asked," Serra said. " And then I would rephrase it and rephrase it and rephrase it. But the jury understood. The jury saw him trying to block it."
Allison said Almena knocked down a wall that allowed access to a fire escape and built stairs she said were unconventional, but safe. But she said other requests for safety improvements were shot down by their landlord.
Allison also said Oakland fire official Maria Sabatini and other firefighters were in the warehouse while investigating an arson fire in 2014, which Sabatini had denied.
"Sabatini said ‘I wasn’t in there.’ Capt. Freelen said ‘I wasn’t in there. And they lied!" Serra said.
On cross-examination by the DA, Allison acknowledged that she once had a methamphetamine problem. She also said many of the changes made in the warehouse were done without proper permitting or inspections.
Allison will return to the stand Wednesday for more cross-examination by the DA.
June 20, 5 p.m.
The trial is dark until Tuesday, at which time Derick Almena's wife Micah Allison is expected to testify.
The defense for Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena began presenting evidence today, but not before two final witnesses were brought to the stand by co-defendant Max Harris.
Oakland fire lieutenant Salvador Garcia showed up in full uniform to testify as a defense witness for Harris.
But Garcia says he was off-duty and in regular clothes when he and his wife attended a Christmas potluck party at the Ghost Ship warehouse in 2014, two years before the fire.
The fire lieutenant’s wife was a teacher, and the party was thrown for staff at her school, which one of Derick Almena’s kids attended.
Garcia said he passed by an RV before taking stairs to the party on the second floor, where he noticed beds belonging to Derick Almena’s family. He testified he wasn’t looking for things like sprinklers as a civilian and said he didn’t feel unsafe in the warehouse.
Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Max Harris told reporters, "That shows that Max Harris, a young kid out of art school with no training or experience in firefighting, wouldn’t have known or appreciated any type of danger.”
And in a rare moment, David Gregory, who lost his daughter Michela in the fire, said he agrees with the defense, that Garcia and other Oakland firefighters who have taken the stand are covering up for the city.
“That fireman lied on the stand to protect the city and the fire department today. He should be ashamed of himself," Gregory said.
Also on the stand was Griselva Ceja, who used to run a beauty salon around the corner that was also owned by Ghost Ship landlord Chor Ng and her family.
Ceja said for years, the Ng family ignored her complaints about a blocked fire exit and power outages numbering up to three times a day.
“Her experience for 13 years was dealing with the Ng family, dealing with electrical issues, dealing with fire hazards, not having those issues addressed, being yelled at by the Ng family, being harassed," Briggs said.
Ng family members won't be testifying in either the criminal or civil trial, having asserted their right against self-incrimination.
“Absent the Ngs having enough courage to show up and testify themselves, this shows what type of people they were; what type of people the tenants at the Ghost Ship were renting from," Briggs said.
Former tenant Olivia Prink and Almena's friend Joe Rodriguez testified they saw firefighters inside the Ghost Ship after they responded to a 2014 arson fire outside the building. Another Almena friend, Troy Altieri said he even saw firefighters dancing on the second floor. But Altieri said the stairs leading upstairs were quote "rinky" and that he wouldn't call them "stairs."
Ultimately though, victims’ families say the two men should be on trial.
“And anybody that lives in any warehouse, of the choose to have stairs that are not up to code so people can not escape, they are choosing that," said Ivania Chavarria, who lost her son Chase in the fire. "When you go into a place, you expect to come out alive."
June 19, 5 p.m.
Defendant Max Harris wrapped up his testimony today after two days of withering cross-examination by prosecutor Autrey James. On Thursday, Harris' attorneys will present two final witnesses. Derick Almena's legal team will then begin presenting evidence.We will likely not hear from Almena himself until after the Fourth of July holiday.
As James asked Harris about inconsistencies in his statements, the defendant appeared visibly irritated, prefacing his answers with "As I’ve said earlier.” At one point, he began one of his answers with a sharp, "I told you."
His attorneys are also objecting repeatedly with “Asked and answered.”
“The prosecutor is trying to bully him into using certain terms and phrases as a desperate attempt to try to get a conviction," defense attorney Curtis Briggs told reporters.
Briggs said the DA is making mountains out of molehills and hasn't proved its case against Harris, whom they say did well on the stand.
“Max Harris is doing an amazing job proving his innocence," Briggs said. "He’s holding up to very difficult questions. He’s not afraid to be vulnerable.”
But Grace Lovio, whose lost partner Jason McCarty in the fire, disagreed.
“He lies constantly," she said. "He’ll lie and they’ll put up some evidence to catch him in the lie. BeMs doing it over and over and over again. I think the worst thing he could have done for his own case was to open his mouth.”
She added, "Any sympathy that any of the family members might have had for him before? That’s gone now. Now that we see who he really is.”
The defense has suggested that an unifnetieodd band of arsonists possibly tied to a disgruntled auto shop owner next door to the Ghost Ship set the warehouse on fire.
The defense says that means master tenant Derick Almena and Harris couldn’t be found guilty.
Lovio countered, "Maybe he didn’t know that there was going to be a fire, but he knew that it was very possible that there could be a power outage and that people would have to find their way out of the building in the dark."
June 18, 4:30 p.m.
Defendant Max Harris will return to the stand Wednesday for a second-day of cross-examination. After jurors left this afternoon, one of his attorneys, Curtis Briggs said he was concerned about a juror apparently fiddling with a wristwatch. Judge Trina Thompson said she hadn't noticed that but advised she'd check in with the juror tomorrow.
Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James wasted no time getting Harris to admit to the jury that he had lied about a number of things, including telling an Oakland police officer that no one lived at the Ghost Ship.
After haggling over the difference between a lie and an omission, Harris admitted, “That was not the truth...if that’s the way you want to look at it, sure.”
Harris had initially testified that the first time the landlords complained to him about not laying the electricity bill was a little more than a month before the 2016 fire at the illegally converted warehouse that killed 36 people.
But the prosecutor showed Harris emails from the landlords dating back to 2015. Harris finally conceded the point, saying, “Now that my memory is refreshed, I would agree with that, thank you.”
Ivania Chavarria, whose son Chase died in the fire, was among many family members of victims who shook their heads as Harris spoke.
“I think he’s been very well trained into lying and what to say and what not to say," Chavarria said outside court.
She added, "If I’m having power outages in my house, I have a problem. So he knew those problems were there."
Another attorney for Harris, Tyler Smith said he wasn’t impressed with the prosecutor’s cross-examination, saying the DA was trying to trip up Harris over semantics and minor inconsistencies.
“You would think that he was handing him a gun with bloody fingerprints on it," Smith told reporters. "But, OK. Wow - that was his big gotcha moment, is that he showed Max an email from a year before where the word ‘electricity’ is used by Eva or Kia Ng, so Max’s response was “OK, you got me.”
The defense objected numerous times about the DA’s tone, saying the prosecutor was being argumentative. But Harris’ attorney says he has no regrets putting his client on the stand.
"The DA is trying to rattle him," Smith said. "They’re very good. Autrey is a very good cross-examiner. So he knows what he’s doing. So we’re just trying to tell Max, stay calm, be yourself, answer truthfully, you have nothing to hide."
June 17, 4 p.m.
Defendant Max Harris has completed his first full day of testimony on direct examination. His attorney Tyler Smith will continue asking him questions on Tuesday.
Asked by Smith if he was aware of safety concerns brought up by witnesses earlier in the trial, Harris he was not and that he would have done anything he could to address those issues. "I would followed up to the best of my ability," he said.
In response to Oakland police body-cam video showing Harris denying to an officer that anyone lived in the warehouse, Harris testified that he wasn't familiar with the officer in question and wasn't sure of the officer's intentions. The officer's tone was somewhat "antagonistic," Harris said, and he was concerned that he and his friends "becoming homeless."
Harris said he didn't believe the warehouse was unsafe and a fire hazard in 2014, when he moved in. He paid rent at first but eventually lived there for free in exchange for cleaning and tidying up the warehouse.
On the day of the fire, Harris said he was greeting people for a music event. When he saw flames, he said, "I started screaming 'fire!'...I was screaming 'use the lights on your phones!' " He said he tried putting out the fire with an extinguisher from his room but realized it wouldn't do much.
Defendant Max Harris took the stand this morning. He wore a suit and an orange buttoned shirt. The courtroom was packed today because of his testimony, and an overflow courtroom was set up to accommodate the additional spectators, which included relatives of Ghost Ship victims.
“We’re very excited that Mr. Harris is on the stand today,” Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris, said outside court. “He’s been in custody for 2 years, waiting to tell his story, waiting to connect to the jury, waiting to tell the truth.”
Under questioning by attorney Tyler Smith, Harris went through a little bit of his background, such as the fact that he has a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
Harris described how he began living at the warehouse in 2014, two years before the deadly fire but after co-defendant Derick Almena had signed the lease for the building.
He said the title of “creative director” came as sort of a whim after Almena informally tasked him with dealing with people who wanted to engage the art collective with projects. He said he used that title several times while communicating with the building landlords. He said it wasn’t any official title.
“It was organic,” Briggs said of Harris. “He wasn’t somebody who was in charge, and he wasn’t somebody with any authority there. And that seems to be going very well today
Throughout his morning testimony, Harris sought to downplay any leadership role at the warehouse, saying it was more of a communal effort where everybody worked together to tackle issues and served as a shoulder to cry on. He did say that two other tenants usually dealt with the auto shop next door whenever electricity went out, as some of the mechanics there could be “intimidating.”
Harris testified that it was the building’s landlords who hired an unlicensed contractor to install electricity in the mechanic shop, which the same landlords owned. That business provided power to the warehouse.
Briggs said, “It was completely jerry-rigged and illegally done, and if the prosecution wants to advance the theory that that’s what caused the fire, then the owners and that electrician should be in the defendant seats.”
Asked if there was a risk putting his client on he stand,” Briggs said, “Not with Max. He’s a wonderful young man. He’s an honest young man. He’s up there to tell the truth and we think the jury will be very very receptive to that.”
A former resident of the Ghost Ship Warehouse testified Thursday that fire safety was a top concern during the time he lived there.
Artist Mike Funkhouser who moved out of the warehouse months before the deadly inferno said that concern was especially heightened before parties and events.
"We were always trying to be proactive about the danger of fire. It was always on our minds," he testified.
But under cross examination, the prosecution asked whether there was or wasn't sprinklers in the building.
"I wasn't aware," Funkhouser answered.
He also testified as a character witness that harris was honest and trustworthy.
Harris and Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena are facing 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
That's the number of people who died when the warehouse burst into flames during an electronic music party in December 2016.
Harris' defense lawyer says Harris did not organize the party that night.
"It wasn't Max Harris' party. It wasn't Derick Almena'a party. It wasn't a party thrown by ghost ship," said attorney Curtis Briggs.
"What strikes me is the number of people who have confirmed and described what a fire trap this was. The amount of fuel in there. It means this was a tragedy waiting to happen," said Mary Alexander, the attorney representing the families of the fire victims in the civil lawsuit.
Relatives of the victims say coming to the trial can be frustrating and heart wrenching.
"It is 50 percent torture and 50 percent therapy. And the therapy part is just being around other families, sharing loved ones stories. It's just really inspiring," said Cyrus Hoda the brother of Sara Hoda who died inside the warehouse. She was 30 years old.
Harris is set to take the witness stand Monday.
"Max Harris certainly will get up and say he wishes he did something different. Or wishes there was something he would have set in motion to change these events. Absolutely. He feels a tremendous amount of guilt," said Briggs.
After Harris testifies, Derick Almena's attorneys will begin presenting his defense, perhaps as soon as next Tuesday.
Inside the Alameda County Courthouse Wednesday, close friends of Ghost Ship defendant Max Harris testified about his integrity.
They described him as truthful, honorable and "deeply honest."
"I want people to know what a compassionate, honest and upstanding person max is," former roommate Alex Goldman said outside court.
"He has maintained he will be held accountable for what he needs to be held accountable for," another friend Elissa Roy also said outside court.
The defense says it is attempting to give a fuller picture of the character of Harris whom the prosecution says was the the creative director at the Ghost Ship and at least partially responsible for creating what the district attorney called a "death trap."
"We want the jury to see people still stand by Max Harris. Even with these allegations he people who know and trust and love Max, they believe in his innocence," said Harris' attorney Curtis Briggs.
Harris and Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena are facing 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
That's the number of people who died when the Ghost Ship burst into flames during an electronic music party in December 2016.
"Sometimes it is extremely painful. It wrings out every emotion," said Colleen Dolan.
Dolan of San Rafael is one of many victims' family members who regularly attend the trial.
Her 33-year-old daughter Chelsea Dolan had been invited to play music at the Ghost Ship that night.
"Our loved ones died unnecessarily, and I just need to be there for Chelsea just to say I'm sorry. You two men are wrong," said Dolan.
"I have a hard time listening to people make excuses for Max or Derick. We all knew who created the Ghost Ship, who ran the Ghost Ship," said David Gregory, whose daughter Michela Gregory died in the fire.
The trial resumes Thursday.
Defense attorneys called Sharon Evans to the stand in the morning to hear her claims that she overheard a group of unidentified men laughing and taking credit for starting the fire after she stopped at an East Oakland taco truck the night of the deadly Ghost Ship fire. Evans claimed the men at the taco truck were “gloating” about how fierce the flames were and they seemed "ecstatic" about the fire.
Prosecutors have questioned Evans’ timeline, previous testimony and her credibility.
Later in the day, defense attorneys also called Oakland Fire Battalion Chief James Bowron to the stand to explain why he made the decision not to tell firefighters that up to 50 people may have been trapped inside the burning warehouse
Almena’s attorney Tony Serra blasted Bowron, claiming he “made the biggest mistake of his life” and questioned why firefighters didn’t break windows or make attempts to rescue people from the second floor.
Bowron testified that alerting firefighters about the number of people potentially inside would have caused hysteria and prevented firefighters from sticking to their tasks.
June 6, 3 p.m.
The jury isn't here today, but attorneys and the judge were back in court on a number of issues.
First, Judge Trina Thompson heard testimony from Sharon Evans, a woman the defense says supports their theory that arsonists are to blame for the deadly Ghost Ship fire.
Evans said she was driving in the area when she saw the back of the warehouse in flames. She said she circled the block numerous times and at one point saw a group of men near her car.
Defense attorneys have previously said that Evans heard someone saying, "The way we put the wood there, they're never getting out," suggesting arson.
Thompson will rule Monday, just before Max Harris' attorneys begin presenting evidence, as to whether Evans can testify.
The judge also rejected defense motions for acquittal. Defense attorneys argued that the prosecution hadn't proved its case.
June 5, 12 p.m.
"No further witnesses, no additional evidence...the people rest," proseuctor Autrey James told Judge Trina Thompson this morning, drawing to a close the government's case after about a month of testimony. Witnesses have included Ghost Ship survivors, tenants, guests, family members of victims, police officers, firefighters, ATF agents, a city building official and forensic pathologists.
Attorneys for Max Harris will begin presenting evidence on Monday. Harris himself is expected to take the stand near the end of their case, which could take a week and a half, according to defense attorney Curtis Briggs. Almena's team will then present their case, which includes putting Almena on the stand.
The last witness for the prosecution was Alameda County district attorney's Inspector Cinda Stoddard, a former Concord police officer who has been investigating the deadly fire since the day after the blaze.
She testified that she got a search warrant for both Almena and Harris' cell phones. She said a reivew of Harris' phone revealed messages on the popular dating app Tinder in which he told an unidentified person that he would be hosting an event at the warehouse the night of the fire.
Stoddard also said she found deposit slips indicating that Harris was collecting rent on behalf of tenants that he then deposited into accounts belonging to landlord Chor Ng or her children Eva and Kai Ng, who acted as her agents. A review of Harris' email also showed numerous messages between Harris and Eva and Kai Ng that dealt with rent payments, including those that were late or never made, Stoddard testified.
On cross-examination, Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris, asked why Stoddard didn't get a search warrant for the cell phones of the Ng family. "I didn't have probable cause," Stoddard said.
She also said she was unaware of a $3 million insurance payout to Chor Ng, other than what was reported in the news. Briggs pointedly asked Stoddard to confirm that she has experience investigating financial crimes and asked why she didn't look into the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in rent money that Ng received.
"It's not my focus," Stoddard responded.
Stoddard confirmed to Briggs that four Ghost Ship tenants, including Robert "Bob" Mule, were "uncooperative" in her investigation, refusing to speak with inspectors. She confirmed that she didn't seek search warrants for those four.
She confirmed that investigators did spend time looking for Jon Hrabko, who promoted the music event at the warehouse on the night of the fire. But inspectors didn't have enough corroborating information to seek a search warrant for him, she testified.
Briggs was about to wrap up but ventured back to the defense table to consult with co-counsel Tyler Smith and their client. Briggs then asked Stoddard, "Max was cooperative?"
"Yes," the inspector replied.
On redirect, prosecutor Autrey James asked Stoddard if investigators can search the homes of anybody they want. The inspector said no, because you need probable cause and citizens are protected against unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment.
June 4, 5 p.m.
The DA is expected to wrap up its case Tuesday morning. The defense will then begin presenting evidence next Monday. Between those two dates, the jury is excused, but the attorneys and the judge will be meeting to discuss administrative matters, such as going over which exhibits the prosecution can admit into evidence.
Unbelievably, the beloved Golden State Warriors might very well affect the Ghost Ship trial, Judge Trina Thompson told jurors their morning.
If the team wins in Game 5, then the trial will be dark on June 14 because the celebration near the courthouse would make it next to impossible to find parking, let alone listen to solemn testimony amid the raucous cheering.
If Golden State wins Game 6, no trial on June 17. If Curry and company win in Game 7, then there will be no testimony on June 19, the judge said.
She said if any of the jurors are not basketball fans, then she is sorry for any inconvenience.
“If you are not a Warriors fan, then we will take a moment of silence,” she said as everyone broke out laughing.
The jury heard from Jonathan Axtell, who escaped from the second floor of the ghost ship warehouse as the fire raged. Axtell said he had no problems going up the wooden stairs. But he testified that there were places where the stairs were uneven and “constructed in a more makeshift way.”
Axtell and other witnesses have told the jury they saw a young woman with blonde hair rushing into the burning warehouse and up the stairs to warn others about the fire. Under questioning by Tony Serra, an attorney for defendant Derick Almena, Axtell said the woman told people not to go down the stairs because the smoke was too thick.
“I am beside myself with fury for his slimy tactics,” Colleen Solan said outside court. She said the woman witnesses have been describing was her daughter Chelsea Dolan, who died in the fire.
She said she resents Serra’s line of questioning, which she said throws her daughter under the bus.
"That firetrap caused that amount of thick black toxic smoke to make her cough so hard that she said the smoke is too thick. Don’t try to blame her for the deaths of 35 of her friends and her own death,” she said.
Tyler Smith, an attorney for defendant Max Harris, said outside court that witnesses are simply telling the jury what they saw.
“Well they’re finding out some things, some truths that maybe it’s not easy for them to hear but these are facts we’re learning as we go, what happened that night.”
Also on the stand was Oakland police officer Brian Kline. He testified that he had responded to calls for service at the Ghost Ship in the years before the fire. He said he was told people lived there, even as Almena and Harris denied that was the case.
Smith said, “Then you would think that a police officer, a trained Oakland police officer who had gone inside, saw it, was told that people were living there would take it upon himself to maybe do something about it.”
May 30, 4:30 p.m.
The trial has concluded for the week. Final prosecution testimony is expected to be presented on Tuesday, June 4. The jury will then be excused until Monday, June 10, at which time the defense for Max Harris will begin presenting witnesses. Between those two dates, the attorneys and judge will still meet to deal with administrative matters, such as marking and identifying exhibits.
ATF Special Agent Barbara Maxwell concluded her testimony today. Under questioning by prosecutor Casey Bates, she testified that there were no reports of strangers, or explosions or glass breaking. No signs of anyone hurling Molotov cocktails, as the defense has suggested.
Maxwell also told the jury, though, that an extensive investigation failed to uncover what caused the fire.
"The investigation wasn't done in a competent fashion," Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris said outside court.
Briggs said his client can't be convicted for a fire he couldn't foresee.
"They left out a number of things that could have been used to solve the cause of this fire," Briggs saisd. "It was essentially disorganization and incompetence that led to the inconclusive result."
Prosecutors, however, say the men on trial are responsible for creating a fire hazard inside the Ghost Ship, a maze-like structure filled with pianos, travel trailers and other material that trapped the 36 people who died.
Briggs showed the ATF agent pictures of what he said looked like a bottle in the charred remains of the warehouse.
"I don't know if that was the bottle that started the fire," Briggs said outside court. "I don't know how the fire started. What I do know is that a number of witnesses that ATF and city of Oakland did not ask questions of say they saw suspicious persons in that warehouse."
Maxwell said investigators didn't test for accelerants because they knew gasoline from the trailers, paint thinners and other flammable liquids were already stored in the warehouse. The water that was put on the fire would have spread that all over the building. She said there would been "no evidentiary value."
May 29, 5 p.m.
Barbara Maxwell, a special agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, took the stand. She said investigators believe the fire began in a back corner of the Ghost Ship warehouse, but no cause could be determined, including any electrical sources.
Asked by the prosecution whether the fire could have been started by someone lobbing a Molotov cocktail, Maxwell said, "I don't believe so."
Defense attorneys have said they have proof that the fire was deliberately set and that unknown arsonists are to blame. If that's the case, the two men on trial, Derick Almena and Max Harris, can't be criminally liable, they argue.
Outside court, Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris said, "What you're witnessing with this ATF agent is probably the biggest sleight of hand that's ever occurred by a prosecution team in the history of American jurisprudence."
Briggs said prosecutors didn't like the testimony by their own previous witness, retired Oakland fire investigator Maria Sabatini, and were now trying to float any possible theory of the fire's cause to provide some explanation for why 36 people died.
Alameda County prosecutors, following longstanding practice, have declined to comment on their case beyond the courtroom walls. Testimony was heard only in the morning to allow several jurors to be able to attend to family events.
May 28, 5 p.m.
"We are so far ahead of schedule," Ghost Ship trial Judge Trina Thompson told jurors today. She said the DA might wrap up its case next week, at which point the defense will begin presenting evidence.
Katleen Bouchard took the stand this morning. She is the mother of Nicholas Bouchard, who co-signed the lease with Derick Almena for what would become the Ghost Ship warehouse. She told the jury her son had called her several times "hysterically crying," asking her to come get him because he felt coerced by Almena in earlier disputes.
She testified that Almena laughed at her when she and her son told him the building needed to brought up to code. She said Almena accused her of being too conventional and that he wanted to do things his own way.
Outside court, Brian Getz, an attorney for Almena, disagreed.
"No, I think he was a normal person who had a long history of building artworks and things for burning man and that sort of thing and i think he has a solid record of that."
Ex-tenant Carmen Brito wrapped up her testimony, saying she believed the warehouse was safe because someone was always awake in the building and a fire station was right around the corner.
She testified, "I never imagined that a fire would be so terrible that they wouldn't be able to put it out."
When asked by the defense why sprinklers weren't installed in the building as she once had suggested, Brito said, "We didn't own the building, and we didn't $50,000 to install a sprinkler system."
Brito confirmed she's filed a civil suit in the case, but that she asked to remove Almena from her complaint.. She also said she's not suing co-defendant Max Harris but is suing the building landlords, the city of Oakland and PG&E.
She's one of I'd say about 10 witnesses that have become defense witnesses at least for Max Harris, if not for both Max and Derick," Tyler Smith, an attorney for Harris said outside court. "So it says a lot. I think the jury's picking up on that."
Also on the stand was city building official David Harlan, who testified that someone had complained about people living in the warehouse. An inspector came out but couldn't get access inside the building. That was less than three weeks before the deadly fire.
Jurors were also read previous preliminary-hearing testimony by electrician Robert Jacobitz, who died earlier this month after suffering from medical issues. Prosecutor Butch Ford sat on the witness stand and read Jacobitz's answers as previous questions were read aloud. Jacobitz had testified that he believed the warehouse was a "deathtrap" but that Almena said he didn't have the money to make the needed repairs.
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.