OAKLAND, Calif. – The San Francisco Bay Area warehouse where a fire killed 36 people more than two years ago was a communal artist enclave where nobody was fully in charge, one of two men blamed for the fire testified Monday.
Max Harris told a packed Oakland courtroom that everyone treated each other as friends in the shared space known as the Ghost Ship, where at least once a month, residents invited people to the warehouse for gatherings to play music or showcase their art.
“There was no power structure,” Harris said. “It was an autonomous place where everybody brought their insights to the table. There was a lot of shared understanding among the residents as far as what’s appropriate behavior. Everyone understood what the space is.”
Harris faces involuntary manslaughter charges along with Derick Almena, who is accused of illegally converting the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse into an artist live-work space where the Dec. 2, 2016, fire killed 36 people.
Prosecutors allege that Almena, 49, stuffed the warehouse full of highly flammable furniture, pianos, rugs and other material and failed to provide smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers and other required safety equipment. Prosecutors say Harris, 29, helped Almena convert the warehouse, collect rent and schedule concerts.
Both men pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter last summer, but a judge scuttled the plea deal after victims’ families objected to their proposed sentences as too lenient.
Judge James Cramer said he rejected the deal because he felt Almena did not show remorse.
Harris’ lawyers say he was made a scapegoat for the tragedy. He testified Monday that he was a struggling tattoo artist and jewelry maker when he found a Craigslist ad offering a studio within the large warehouse for $750 per month. After moving in, he performed menial tasks such as cleaning the communal space and pooling the monthly rent to reduce his rent.
He said the landlord hired an unlicensed electrician to perform electrical work at the warehouse and an auto body shop next door. When the lights went out at the warehouse, Harris said he sometimes had to call workers at the auto body shop to replace the fuse.
Although fire inspectors never determined the cause of the fire, prosecutors raised the possibility that the fire was caused by electrical equipment.
Harris’ attorney, Curtis Briggs, said his client’s testimony showed the electrical system “was completely jerry-rigged and illegally done.”
“If the prosecution wants to advance that theory, then the owners and the electrician should be on the defense seat,” Briggs said.
The owner of the building has not been charged and has not spoken about the fire.
Prosecutors say a fire alarm went off the night of the fire but no one heard it. The warehouse also lacked sprinklers to slow the blaze so people had time to escape.
Harris and Almena are also accused of failing to provide adequate safety equipment, exits and signage.
In his opening statement last month, Briggs sought to distance his client from Almena and raised the possibility of arson as he tried to shift blame to others.
Defense witness Sharon Evans testified earlier this month that while the fire raged, she heard a group of men celebrating, saying no one was going to come out alive. She said she heard them indicate they set the fire themselves, although most of her testimony wasn’t allowed to be heard by the jury after the prosecution objected that it was hearsay, the East Bay Times reported.
Federal fire officials traced the origin of the fire to a back corner of the warehouse’s ground floor but could not determine a cause.
The men could face up to 36 years each if convicted on all counts.
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