Attorneys in Ghost Ship case discuss Almena, Harris relationship

The nature of the relationship between Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena and creative director Max Harris was the subject of several motions that were discussed on Wednesday in their trial for the fire in 2016 that killed 36 people.

Almena, 48, and Harris, 29, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Dec. 2, 2016.

The lawyers in the case argued over a motion by Almena's lawyer Tony Serra seeking to bar prosecutors from mentioning a New York Times article in which Harris was quoted as saying that Almena "pretended, as a joke, that he was Hitler and I was his Jewish slave."

Serra said, "For the record, my client is not anti-Semitic" and said allowing that statement to be introduced in the trial would be prejudicial.

But Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates said the quote "shows the relative positions of power" of Almena and Harris at the warehouse.

Bates said he thinks the comment shows that, "Mr. Almena is asserting his dominance and control."

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson said she thinks Harris' quote "is fair game if he takes the witness stand" and testifies.

"That's the risk you take when you voluntarily speak to the press," the judge said.

Thompson said she will read the New York Times article, reflect on the issue and "make an informed decision" on the matter in the near future.

The lawyers in the case also argued over Serra's motion to bar prosecutors from alleging that Almena was "profiteering" by subleasing space at the warehouse.

Bates said the issue of people who lived at the warehouse paying rent to Almena "is absolutely relevant because it shows his overwhelming power and control of the facility."

Bates said Almena "was engaging in something that made money and afforded him a lifestyle within the warehouse in which he was the top dog."

Almena might not have been rich by some people's standards but his living space was the largest at the warehouse, the prosecutor said.

Almena "was not just a person living in a collective -- he was the alpha in the community," Bates said.

Thompson said she will bar the use of the term "profiteering" unless prosecutors produce evidence to back up that allegation, but will allow them to introduce evidence that Almena collected rent.

The attorneys in the case also clashed over Serra's motion to bar prosecutors from making references about Almena use of drugs, including methamphetamines.

Serra said Almena stopped using drugs two years before the fire and alleged that mentioning the drug use would be "inflammatory" and "is only being offered for character assassination."

But Bates said Almena's use of methamphetamines is relevant because Nicholas Bouchard, who was a leaseholder at the warehouse, told investigators that he believes Almena's use of methamphetamines made Almena behave erratically and influenced Almena's decision to violate the terms of the lease and allow people to live at the building.

Bates said Bouchard and Almena had a falling out over that issue and Almena transformed the warehouse into a living space "without the landlords' permission."

Thompson said she will allow limited testimony about Almena's drug use only in terms of Bouchard's perceptions and his relationship with Almena.

The attorneys in the case were set to discuss additional evidentiary issues later Wednesday as well as on Thursday and next week.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin on April 16 and opening statements are scheduled for April 30 and May 1.