Defense claims Ghost Ship fire was arson, blasts Oakland fire battalion chief

Defense attorneys representing Derick Almena and Max Harris, the two defendants criminally charged in the deadly Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire, called their first witnesses Monday at an Alameda County courthouse in Oakland.

Attorneys claim the fire was arson and called Sharon Evans to the stand 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 following a church service. 

“This isn’t something that the defense is making up,” Harris’ attorney Tyler Smith said. “Ms. Evans has no motivation to do this. She only wants the truth to come out.”

Evans claimed the men at the taco truck were “gloating” about how fierce the flames were and said, “No one is going to make it out of the building alive. No one is going to survive.”

Prosecutors have questioned Evans’ timeline, previous testimony and her credibility. Outside of court on Monday, relatives of those who died in the fire questioned the arson theory.

“The place was still a tinder box. It was built up by Derick Almena and Max Harris invited people in,” said Colleen Dolan, mother of victim Chelsea Dolan.

Fire investigators have never determined what caused the fire that killed 36 party go-ers at the artists’ collective on Dec. 2, 2016.

Also Monday, the defense called former Ghost Ship tenant Michael Russell to the stand. Russell testified that he and a date were watching a movie the night of the fire when he saw two or three unidentified men running down a hallway away from the flames. He claimed he also heard a woman at the bottom of the front stairs shouting, “this is the will of the spirits and the forests. Don’t come down the stairs.”

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.