OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – A witness working the door the night of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 people in Oakland two and a half years ago rejected during his testimony in state court Tuesday defense attorneys’ suggestion that the fire was caused by people throwing Molotov cocktails.
Ryan O’Keefe was greeting guests and soliciting donations at the Ghost Ship’s front door during an electronic music dance party when the fire started late in the evening on Dec. 2, 2016.
O’Keefe’s testimony was a blow for the defense, which claims arsonists started the fire.
During opening statements last week on behalf of defendants Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29, their lawyers alleged that a group of unidentified people entered the Ghost Ship through a side door and threw “bottles of gasoline” toward the back of the building before quickly exiting through that same door.
During the trial Tuesday, O’Keefe testified that from his vantage point at the front of the building, he was one of the first people to see the fire starting at the back of it – where investigators believe the fire started – and to alert guests.
He said he could “see a clear pathway” to the back of the warehouse, and he did not see anyone throwing Molotov cocktails.
Almena and Harris both lived at the Ghost Ship and ran the Satya Yuga artists’ collective on the premises before the warehouse burned down. They each face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Prosecutors claim they filled the Fruitvale neighborhood warehouse with combustible materials and failed to fireproof it before illegally renting it out for events and as living quarters.
Defense attorney Tony Serra’s strategy Tuesday hinged on showing that O’Keefe’s view of the back of the Ghost Ship was obstructed from where he stood and that he could not possibly confirm or deny the presence of arsonists at the back of the building.
To win, prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Almena’s and Harris’s negligence caused the victims’ deaths. Unconfirmed allegations of arson could torpedo their case, if the defense creates any doubt in jurors’ minds about the defendant’s culpability.
“As the glow accelerated in your direction, there was smoke, it was black,” Serra told O’Keefe Tuesday. “Did you see the flames?”
O’Keefe said he did, “after I saw the glow,” adding that he could see the back of the building before smoke and flames blocked his view. Under questioning by Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James earlier Tuesday, O’Keefe described the fire as a “small glow” that “exploded into an inferno” within seconds.
O’Keefe appeared to scoff at the idea the fire was started by people throwing Molotov cocktails. He described guests as “happy” and “jovial” and estimated he knew about 90% them. He estimated that 75 people attended the party that night.
“Did you notice anyone entering the building with, for instance, a Molotov cocktail?” James asked O’Keefe. “Did you hear anything in connection with the fire starting that might’ve been connected to a Molotov cocktail?”
O’Keefe said he had not.
O’Keefe’s testimony regarding a series of popping sounds he heard during the fire also appeared to undercut the defense’s arson theory.
Defense attorneys say a witness who lived in a makeshift room near the back of the Ghost Ship 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.” O’Keefe testified Tuesday he also heard a series of popping sounds – after the fire started. He said he believes the sounds came from light bulbs he watched “smash out in succession” from the back of the warehouse to the front as hot smoke poured toward to the entrance of the building.
Almena’s former friend Rodney Griffin also testified Tuesday. An unlicensed contractor, Griffin was brought in to evaluate what needed to be done to the Ghost for it to comply with fire and safety codes. Griffin advised properly wiring the building and installing a fire exit and a second staircase, which would have cost an estimated $10,000. Almena rejected the suggestions as too expensive.
“He laughed at me and said, ‘Haha, we should call it the Satya Yuga death trap,” Griffin testified Tuesday, recounting Almena’s response when Griffin called the warehouse a “death trap.”
The defense scored a win just before trial wrapped for the day.
Griffin testified that he reported the Ghost Ship’s dangerous conditions to the neighborhood fire station located just blocks from the warehouse. Defense attorneys have repeatedly attempted to shift blame for the fire to Oakland police, fire personnel and others for failing to shut down the Ghost Ship after learning that people lived there.
In February, Defense attorneys asked presiding Judge Trina Thompson to arrest city employees and try them alongside Almena and Harris. Thompson denied the request.
Griffin said fire authorities were “aware of the conditions of the building” but took no action.