On December 2, 2016, a fire broke out in Oakland, California at a warehouse-turned-artist collective known as Ghost Ship that killed 36 helpless individuals. The fire broke out during a rave where an estimated 80-100 people were in attendance.
Since that time, prosecutors have been trying to hold Max Harris (the space’s “Creative Director”) and Derick Almena (the property manager) responsible for these deaths in court. Their efforts heartbreakingly proved unsuccessful when a jury failed to convict either individual last Thursday. This also comes after a judge previously discarded a plea deal.
Prosecutors argued that Harris and Almena turned the warehouse into a death trap with illegal construction, improper electrical work, and other fire hazards like permitting derelict furniture/flammable material strewn about that acted as kindling. The jury acquitted Harris. Only 10 out of 12 jurors agreed that Almena was negligent. Each of the men faced up to 36 years in state prison if found guilty.
“The jury is hopelessly deadlocked. I declare a mistrial as it relates to Mr. Almena.”
This fire was the deadliest since The Station nightclub fire in Warwick, Rhode Island in 2003, which killed 100. The Station fire also prompted increased scrutiny of regulations nationwide. The pair’s defense argued that the city was liable for not enforcing building codes and allowing Ghost Ship to operate in plain sight. Unlike The Station nightclub, however, Ghost Ship was operating illegally as the building was not zoned for residential use. Almena, regardless, was charging occupants rent.
ATF was unable to determine the cause of the fire, likely complicating the case for prosecutors. The defense’s key argument was that the fire was not caused by something electrical, as theorized, but by arsonists. Witnesses testified that they heard glass breaking, likened to Molotov cocktails, and another claimed to see a large group of men in hoodies outside excitedly discussing how they started the fire.
“I’m kind of in shock. I feel sick to my stomach. There should be a retrial. I know it’s going to be long and exhausting, like this already was. The whole thing just sucks.”
Alberto Vega, brother of Alex Vega, who perished in the fire.
Almena and Harris lied to police officers on the night of the fire about living at the warehouse. They claimed that they were instructed to do so by the building’s owners.
A new hearing is set for Oct. 4, where the determination will be made if a retrial of Almena will be initiated. Should that proceed, Harris could be called as a witness.
Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the 36 individuals who lost their lives in the Ghost Fire. We hope to see justice for this case soon.
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