Defense in Ghost Ship Trial Says Fire Was Work of Arsonists

Ghost Ship warehouse after the fire. [photo credit: Jim Heaphy]

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – An attorney for one of the men blamed for the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 people in 2016 told an Oakland state court jury Wednesday the fire was an act of arson that may have been set by people throwing bottles of gasoline.

“They threw them, they lit them, and they left,” Tony Serra, who represents defendant Derick Almena, said Wednesday. “My client had nothing to do with them. What could he do?”

The allegation comes a day after attorneys for co-defendant Max Harris suggested a “group of 10 to 12 Latino males” barricaded concertgoers inside the Oakland warehouse during an electronic music dance party and set it on fire. The attorneys also said the fire could have been started by Omar Vega, the owner of the auto body shop next door who regularly locked horns with warehouse tenants.

Serra stopped short of implicating “Latino males” in the alleged arson Wednesday, but like Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs, he suggested Vega as a potential culprit. Serra said a defense witness who lived in a makeshift room on the Ghost Ship’s first floor near where the fire is believed to have started heard a series of popping sounds that sounded like “breaking glass” and saw “people hurrying out of the back door at the time the fire started.”

“The evidence will show that in order for a fire to rage in the fashion that it did, the inception of the fire has to be something hard,” Serra said. “Arson was not foreseeable. My client did everything possible to make the premises safe.”

Almena, 49, and Harris, 29, both lived at the Ghost Ship and ran an artists’ collective on the premises before it burned down on Dec. 2, 2016. They each face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter with prosecutors claiming the men filled the Fruitvale-area warehouse with combustible materials and failed to fireproof it before renting it out for events and as living quarters.

According to prosecutors, up to 25 people lived at the Ghost Ship at any given time, even though the building was zoned only for industrial use.

On Wednesday, Serra also blamed the fire on the Ng family – who own the building but weren’t charged in the fire – Oakland police and fire personnel, and county child protective services employees, who all allegedly visited the warehouse before the fire but didn’t report it or shut it down after learning people lived there.

According to Serra, police officers entered the warehouse at will through the front door, which was left open around the clock. During one police visit, he said, officers refused to remove a “belligerent” tenant whom Almena had unsuccessfully tried to evict. Instead, they said Almena was obligated to provide the tenant with the “rudiments of safe living.”

“That, in essence, told him she had the right to be there,” Serra said. “It confirmed in his mind that this was OK, that this was approved by law enforcement.” 

What’s more, according to Serra, Oakland’s then-assistant fire marshal Maria Sabatini toured the Ghost Ship after an arson attempt there in September 2014. During that visit, Sabatini didn’t deem the building dangerous or order it shut down, according to Serra. She instead marveled at the artwork, particularly a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Prosecutors deny Sabatini entered the building.

“No one ever told him he had to modify the premises or exit the premises,” Serra told the 12 members of the jury. “He was never given a demand, he was never given a citation, he was never red-tagged.

After presiding Judge Trina Thompson dismissed the jury, Alameda County prosecutor Autry James said his team had no evidence of the witness-based allegations Briggs presented Tuesday, and asked Thompson to order it turned over. James didn’t specify to which allegations he was referring, but they could relate to the witness statements identifying Vega, “Latino males” or people throwing bottles of gasoline as potential arsonists.

Briggs said he learned of the witness statement from Stephen Dreher, the attorney defending the Ng family in a civil suit brought by the fire victims’ families. Briggs said he assumed James had the statement because Dreher had turned it over to county prosecutors, who in turn interviewed the witness about it.

Dreher, who was in court Wednesday, confirmed he gave the statement to David Lim, a lead prosecutor on the Ghost Ship case until his surprise resignation in March.

Thompson ordered the witness statement turned over to prosecutors before adjourning Wednesday’s proceedings.

Testimony begins Monday morning in Alameda County Superior Court in Oakland.

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