Leaseholder, mother of victim among first to testify in Ghost Ship trial

A leaseholder for the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale district where 36 people perished in a fire in 2016 testified on Monday that master tenant Derick Almena laughed him off when he told him that the building should be brought up to code.

        Follow crime reporter Henry Lee's blog from inside the courtroom

Nicholas Bouchard, 27, the second witness in the trial of Almena, 49, and Ghost Ship creative director Max Harris, 29, said he called a meeting several weeks after he and Almena signed a lease for the warehouse at 1309 31st Avenue on Nov. 10, 2013, to address his concern that they were violating the terms of the lease by allowing people to live there.

Bouchard said he also was concerned that there were safety issues because the building lacked adequate smoke alarms and fire extinguishers and there were electrical and water issues as well.

But Bouchard said Almena arrived late for the meeting and when he said when he finally showed up "he scoffed and laughed at us" and looked at his cellphone and Facebook.

Bouchard said he lived with Almena and a few others at the warehouse for a few weeks after they signed the lease but he moved out because of his concerns.

Bouchard said that at one point later on Almena wanted to work with him on a project for a music festival but he said he didn't want to work with Almena "because he had a bad reputation at that point and had become quite aggressive."

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

The first witness the prosecution called to the stand was Carol Cidlik, the mother of fire victim Nicole Siegrist, 29, of Oakland.

Fighting back tears, Cidlik said that at 11:23 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2016, her daughter sent a text message to her mother saying, "I'm going to die."

Cidlik said the message was unusual because Siegrist "was a happy person."

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson allowed Cidlik to testify over the objection of Harris' lawyer Tyler Smith.

Smith wrote in a motion he filed on Friday, "The danger of undue prejudice (against Harris and Almena in jurors' minds) is extremely high and vastly outweighs any probative value that Ms. Cidlik's testimony might provide."

Smith said, "The testimony of Ms. Cidlik is inadmissible because it does not tend to prove or disprove any fact that is in question" in the trial.

Smith said the prosecution initially had said it would call its witnesses "in the order in which the events related to this case transpired," meaning that it would start with testimony about the lase.

Smith wrote, "The fact that they (the prosecution) want to call Ms. Cidlik as their very first witness betrays their true motive of having her testify: they wish to use a grieving mother's testimony to tug at the jurors' heartstrings in the hopes that jurors will look at Mr. Harris and Mr. Almena to seek retribution for Ms. Cidlik's heartbreak."

Testimony resumes Tuesday. After Monday's session, prosecutor Autrey James revealed that electrician Robert Jacobitz, who has described the warehouse as a "death trap," died in an accident Sunday in San Pablo. His testimony from a preliminary hearing in 2017 will likely be read into the record.