OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – An Oakland judge presiding over the trial of two men blamed for the deaths of 36 people in the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire threatened to ban all but the victims’ families and the media from the proceedings after learning that unidentified people contacted jurors during a court break Tuesday in an apparent effort to influence them.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson did not say who contacted the jurors or for what reason, but she said the California penal code allows her to close the courtroom for the entire trial if the jurors’ physical safety is threatened. She also promised to heighten court security and to consider making arrests if the inappropriate contact continues.
“Your clients, the victims and the overall process can be jeopardized,” Thompson said Tuesday. “This has been an open courtroom for a variety of reasons. But if someone wants to continue to violate the rules of the court, there will be consequences.”
The surprise development comes on the first day of the proceedings against Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29, who both lived at the Ghost Ship and ran an artists’ collective on the premises before it burned down during an electronic-music party on Dec. 2, 2016.
Almena and Harris each face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for filling the Fruitvale-neighborhood warehouse “from floor to ceiling” with combustible materials and failing 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 it was zoned only for industrial use.
It was unclear Tuesday afternoon how Thompson will proceed. The judge closed the courtroom to interview jurors and pushed attorney Tony Serra’s scheduled opening statement to Wednesday morning. Serra, of Pier 5 Law Offices in San Francisco, represents Almena.
The proceedings kicked off Tuesday morning with opening statements by Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates. According to Bates, Almena repeatedly refused to install fire safety measures, including sprinklers, smoke detectors and fire exits, and did unlicensed electrical work. Alemna also failed to use sheetrock – which Bates said slows a fire down – on interior remodeling projects.
Bates said that all of these safety lapses caused the blaze to spread more rapidly than it otherwise would have, trapping concertgoers on the second floor of the warehouse before they realized anything was wrong.
“Thirty-six people died in this fire, and they died because there was no time and there was no ability to escape,” Bates said, adding that the victims all died from smoke inhalation in less than two minutes.
To support this argument, Bates reconstructed the night of the fire by playing chaotic 911 calls and reading aloud text messages victims sent their loved ones telling them goodbye.
“I love you, fire,” one man texted his girlfriend before losing consciousness, unable to escape the rapidly advancing flames on the second floor. The only staircase visible from the second floor was on fire, Bates said, trapping all but one of the victims, who escaped through a second-floor kitchen window.
“Oh my God! Oh my God!” another man screamed to the 911 dispatcher who took his call during the fire. The man became increasingly hysterical during the short recording, and multiple people in the courtroom gallery cried as they listened to the recording.
“Thirty-six people remained inside the warehouse,” Bates told the jury.
During his own opening remarks, Harris’ lawyer, Curtis Briggs, said the fire was intentionally set, suggesting the owner of an auto body shop next door to the Ghost Ship or even a “group of 10 to 12 Latino males” were the culprits.
According to Briggs, a witness saw the group of men outside the fire and heard one of them say, “The way we put that wood there, they’re never getting out.”
“The evidence will show that this was an arson,” Briggs said. “The evidence will show that the reason these people perished, the reason they didn’t have notice, time, an escape route, is because it was designed that way.”
Tuesday’s arson allegations are new. In the two years since their clients were charged, Briggs and Serra have sought to shift blame for the fire to the Ghost Ship’s owner and to Oakland police and fire personnel, arguing they knew the building was unsafe but didn’t inspect it or shut it down after learning people lived there. In February, Thompson rejected a motion by Briggs and Serra to have city employees arrested for their alleged roles in the fire.
Briggs also tried Tuesday to counter allegations that Harris played a managing-director role at the Ghost Ship because he produced events there and collected rent, which prosecutors say made him culpable alongside Almena for the negligent way in which the warehouse was maintained. Briggs called Harris “Christ-like,” “Buddhistic, a “servant” and “a Cinderella” who braved the Fruitvale’s “pimps and prostitutes” to deposit fellow tenants’ rent money at the nearby bank. The martyr-like portrayal of Harris stood in contrast to the callousness attributed to Almena, who is said to have controlled Harris.
“Max doesn’t tell people ‘no,'” Briggs said. “Max just serves.”
The trial continues Wednesday.