ATF agent says Ghost Ship leader knew there weren't sprinklers

A federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent testified today that Ghost Ship warehouse creative director Max Harris told her after a deadly fire there last year that he knew the building didn't have sprinklers but didn't do anything about it.

ATF agent Whitney Hameth testified this morning on the fifth day of a preliminary hearing for Harris, 27, and Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 47, on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of 36 people in the Dec. 2, 2016, blaze at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave.

Hameth said Harris told her, "He was aware they didn't have sprinklers but never thought to ask the landlord to put them in."

Harris' three attorneys have sought to downplay Harris' role in running the warehouse, which also was known as the Satya Yuga Collective, but Hameth said Harris described himself as the building's creative director and in his emails to her he listed himself as the "Executive Director of the Satya Yuga Art Collective."

Hameth said when she interviewed Harris on Dec. 5, 2016, three days after the fire, he told her that about 100 to 120 people attended a music party on the warehouse's second floor and Ghost Ship leaders blocked off many areas on the building's first floor.

Hameth testified that Harris said, "The only thing that was open downstairs was the hallway."   

The purpose of the preliminary hearing, which is expected to conclude later today, is to determine if there's enough evidence for Harris and Almena to stand trial.

Prosecutors allege that the warehouse was in violation of several rules under the California Fire Code, such as not having adequate fire-suppression systems, smoke alarms, exit signs and sprinklers.

Prosecutors also allege that the industrial building wasn't zoned for residential use and that Almena and Harris remodeled the warehouse without going through proper inspection and permitting procedures.

Tony Serra, Almena's lead attorney, has indicated that defense attorneys expect Almena and Harris to be ordered to stand trial.

When asked on Tuesday if defense attorneys will present any witnesses at the preliminary hearing, Serra said they won't, saying, "We have defenses but we're saving them strategically for the trial."

During the lunch break today, Serra said fire investigators have never been able to reach a conclusion about the fire's cause and origin.

"It's very difficult to assign culpability to the people who are charged when they don't even know the cause and origin," Serra said.

Oakland Fire Department Acting Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini will testify this afternoon about her efforts in trying to determine the fire's cause and origin.