OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – Dressed in a charcoal blazer, orange button-down and brown-striped tie accented by a green-checkered pocket square, Ghost Ship warehouse fire defendant Max Harris calmly waited for his attorney’s next question at the involuntary manslaughter trial in Oakland state court Monday.
“How did you interact with the others with all that power?” asked defense attorney Tyler Smith before quickly rephrasing the question.
The question was an apparent dig at prosecutors, who insist Harris, 29, helped run the Ghost Ship and that he was responsible for the fire that killed 36 concertgoers there on Dec. 2, 2016.
Harris was arrested and charged with 36 counts of manslaughter the following year. The news stunned the local arts community and former Ghost Ship residents, some of whom insist Harris was just another tenant who had no say in how the Fruitvale neighborhood artists’ warehouse was run. His defense lawyers have meanwhile built their case around claims the Alameda County District Attorney’s office is “scapegoating” Harris to cover for Oakland’s failure to shut down the warehouse for safety violations before it burned down.
But prosecutors contend Harris had billed himself as the Ghost Ship’s “creative director” and had collected rent from fellow tenants on behalf of co-defendant and master tenant Derick Almena.
Smith’s line of questioning Monday built on this theme, which revealed that Harris was not paid for his work at the Ghost Ship cleaning, doing yard work, plunging stopped-up toilets and collecting rent money, which had become like a full-time job. In exchange for his work, Harris was given a $185 rent break – he had been paying $750 a month – and eventually was allowed to live there rent-free.
Asked whether he had ever ordered the other tenants around, Harris testified, “Absolutely not,” adding, “It’s not in my character to do that.”
Articulate and methodical throughout the full day of questioning, Harris explained that his title of “creative director” was a joke. When a yoga company asked Almena if he could build a stage for them, Almena pulled Harris into the conversation and told them, “Here’s our creative director.”
“It was news to me. I just rolled with it,” Harris said Monday.
He acknowledged he had used the title in a few emails to the Ghost Ship’s landlords and when applying for arts funding but otherwise “I didn’t take it seriously,” he said.
Harris likewise downplayed his role as rent collector. He volunteered for the task after another tenant was caught stealing the pooled rent money instead of handing it over to their landlord. Tenants agreed to let Harris do it because he was regarded as trustworthy, Harris said.
And although prosecutors contend Harris planned the fateful concert, Harris testified he had only told his friend he could throw an event there that night.
“There was no process” for planning events, Harris said. “It maybe was not a planned thing because it could just be your band practicing.”
Harris’ direct examination continues Tuesday in Oakland.