No convictions in California trial over ‘Ghost Ship’ warehouse fire

US

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) – A California jury on Thursday acquitted one of two defendants charged with manslaughter in an Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36 people in 2016 and failed to reach a verdict on charges against a second man, a defense attorney said.

FILE PHOTO: Firefighters work inside the burned warehouse following the fatal fire in the Fruitvale district of Oakland, California, U.S. December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Attorney Curtis Briggs said the jury acquitted his client, Max Harris, 29, and failed to reach a verdict against Harris’ co-defendant, Derick Almena, 49. Both men ran a live-in artists’ colony at the warehouse, which was nicknamed the Ghost Ship and erupted in flames on Dec. 2, 2016, Alameda County prosecutors have said.

The outcome marked a defeat for prosecutors, who had accused Almena and Harris of creating a ripe environment for the fire through their negligence, pointing to the 10,000-square-foot (900-square-meter) building’s lack of sprinklers and smoke detectors.

Attorneys for Almena and Harris in closing arguments last month said police, fire and child welfare officials visited the building before the fire and never ordered tenants out because of any risks at the building, according to Northern California public radio station KQED.

A representative for the Oakland mayor could not immediately be reached for comment. Alameda County prosecutors were expected to address the news media later on Thursday.

The blaze, which erupted during an electronic dance music party that drew scores of visitors, was the deadliest fire at a building in the United States since 100 people died in 2003 in a fire at a Rhode Island nightclub.

Almena and Harris had each faced a maximum sentence of 39 years in prison if they were convicted.

They have been held in jail in lieu of $750,000 bail each since their June 2017 arrest, according to Alameda County online inmate records.

With his acquittal, Harris is due to be released from jail, which marked an abrupt reversal of fortune from last year when he and Almena were close to a plea deal that would have sent each man to prison for several years.

It was not immediately clear if prosecutors would seek a second trial for Almena.

Alameda County Judge James Cramer in August 2018 rejected the proposed plea agreement with prosecutors. It would have resulted in a nine-year prison sentence for Almena and six years for Harris.

Families of the victims wanted a trial to learn more about how the tragedy unfolded, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office said last year when the plea deal was abandoned.

ARTISTS’ REFUGE

Almena rented the warehouse and ran it as an art collective and communal residence without proper permits, creating a refuge for artists with limited income in a San Francisco Bay Area known for high rents.

Harris, who helped run the warehouse, was present on the night of the fire while Almena was off site with his family.

The two men’s trial in Alameda County Superior Court began in April.

In May, retired Oakland fire investigator Maria Sabatini testified that the fire appeared to have started in a northwest corner of the first floor, one level below where people gathered for the dance party, according to San Francisco television station ABC7. Investigators were unable to find the exact cause of the fire, Sabatini testified.

Slideshow (3 Images)

Attorneys for Harris and Almena had suggested an arsonist started it with a Molotov cocktail, but according to ABC7 Sabatini testified there was no evidence of an incendiary device.

On Aug. 19, the judge overseeing the trial named three alternate jurors to replace three members of the panel who were dismissed after more than a week of deliberations, according to local media.

Alameda County Judge Trina Thompson said the following day that two of the jurors she dismissed could be charged with contempt of court for violating orders barring them from reading outside materials about the case or talking to people about it, television station CBS San Francisco reported.

Writiing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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