Ghost Ship Trial Testimony Appears to Give One Defendant an Out

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

OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A fire marshal’s testimony in the involuntary manslaughter trial involving the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed dozens of people in Oakland two and a half years ago appeared to help one of the men held responsible for the deaths Wednesday, while leaving a second defendant on the hook.

Former Oakland fire marshal Cesar Avila testified in Alameda County Court that under fire safety regulations, the person who makes alterations to a building is legally responsible for them, whether or not that person owns the building in question. Unpermitted alterations put that person in violation of the regulations.

“The person responsible for that change is responsible,” Avila said under cross-examination by Curtis Briggs, the attorney representing defendant Max Harris.

Briggs followed up: “So, if somebody came along two to three years later and was living in that space ….” Briggs was interrupted by an objection from prosecutors, which was sustained by Judge Trina Thompson.

Briggs rephrased his inquiry: “So, if one of the tenants came along, who may not have understood what the occupancy is because they weren’t part of that process …”

Prosecutors objected again, also sustained.

Briggs tried a third time: “Let’s say you’re inspecting a structure three years after the occupancy was changed with the city,” he told Avila, referring to the purpose for which a building will be used. “How would you know what the occupancy was?”

Avila, now a fire marshal for Alameda County, said he would research the building’s occupancy status before heading out to do his inspection. When pressed, he said he would conduct the research using paper and computer files held by the fire department.

“Someone like Max Harris couldn’t just walk into your office and start digging through your files?” Briggs asked.

Avila said he could not.

The prosecution’s rapid-fire objections to this line of questioning came as no surprise. Although Briggs spoke hypothetically, his questions clearly referred to Harris and appeared to undercut the case against him.

Harris and co-defendant Derick Almena are each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the Dec. 2, 2016, fire that killed 36 concertgoers, for allegedly cluttering the Ghost Ship warehouse with flammable materials and failing to fireproof it before illegally converting it into an event space and living quarters. Prosecutors say as many as 25 people lived at the Ghost Ship at any given time, some in motor homes with intact motors parked on the warehouse’s first floor. 

Harris’s arrest prompted fury among local artists. Unlike Almena, who was the Ghost Ship’s master tenant, oversaw the unpermitted alterations and allegedly refused to install fire-safety upgrades such as sprinklers and smoke alarms, Harris was a subletter who had no say in how the Ghost Ship was run or what alterations were made to its interior. The defense also argues that Harris had no managerial role at the Ghost Ship and should not have been charged.

Prosecutors, however, tell a different story. During opening statements last week, they described Harris as the Ghost Ship’s creative director because he produced public events there, and as a type of building manager because he drew up impromptu rental agreements for new tenants and collected rent money from them.

Almena’s attorney Tony Serra questioned Avila next. Serra tried to establish that the Ghost Ship’s landlord was obligated to re-register the building’s occupancy with the city and to install mandated fire-safety upgrades when the lease with Almena was signed. The warehouse was registered as a goods-storage space, but the lease stated Almena would be using it to build theatrical sets and as a community arts space, a new type of use, according to Serra.

“Didn’t the landlord create a change in usage which he had a duty to report?” Serra asked Avila.

The prosecution twice objected to the question, and Avila was not permitted to answer.

Former Ghost Ship resident Jennifer Turner also testified Wednesday. Under questioning by prosecutor Casey Bates, Turner said Almena had instructed her on an October 2014 tour of the Ghost Ship not to tell anyone people were living there. According to Turner, this instruction included the Ghost Ship’s landlord.

Turner’s testimony was to continue Thursday morning in Oakland.

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