OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – With the charred remnants of the Ghost Ship warehouse smoldering around them, the attention of police, firefighters and investigators all fixed on one man at the Red Cross station. He was newly homeless and frantic with worry, having lost several friends in the fire.
Described by his lawyer as a “gangly young man with a blue mohawk, tattoos on his face and piercings,” Max Harris became – according to the attorney – the scapegoat for a fire that killed 36 concertgoers in 2016.
Attorney Curtis Briggs told the jury in closing arguments Tuesday that investigators pinned the fire on his client from the beginning, ignoring the possibility that the fire could have been started by arsonists.
“They saw a reason. They saw the why. They saw somebody who didn’t fit into a mold, and they pursued that reason,” Briggs said.
A bespectacled Harris, in court wearing a charcoal suit accented by a spray of flowers in the breast pocket and his hair pulled back in a tidy bun, looked nothing like the bemused and disheveled kid from his mugshot.
Briggs said Harris was like any other tenant in the Ghost Ship, an artist collective run by Derick Almena, the building’s master tenant. Though Harris called himself the collective’s “creative director,” and supposedly hosted events like the concert on Dec. 2, 2016, Briggs said Harris had no say in how the Ghost Ship ran and only did errands for Almena in exchange for lower rent.
The night of the fire, Briggs said, a man named Jon Hrabko hosted the party at the space and promoted it on Facebook.
Harris and Almena are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for converting a warehouse never meant for residential use into living quarters for 25 tenants. They are also accused of filling it with combustible materials that fueled the fire, the cause of which was deemed inconclusive by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Alameda County Arson Task Force in a 2017 report. They each face 39 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Briggs said Harris had no reason to believe the Ghost Ship was unsafe, as multiple firefighters, police officers, and social workers had visited over the years and did not seem concerned about the lack of sprinklers, smoke detectors, or a makeshift staircase that served as the only way of accessing the building’s second floor.
All but one of the people who died in the fire were trapped on the second level, unable to negotiate a staircase crammed with people trying to flee as both floors filled with smoke.
Harris was not around when Almena signed the lease with Nico Bouchard in 2013. Bouchard later split after a few weeks, claiming the building was unsafe and that Almena was violating the terms of the lease, according to prosecutors.
Briggs said Tuesday that Almena had some kind of understanding with building owners Eva and Kai Ng about how the space was used and that it was the landlords’ responsibility to ensure that the warehouse was up to code.
Harris, he said, was just a kid fresh out of art school when he joined the collective, and he had no reason to question Almena’s arrangement with the Ngs.
“Max didn’t design the warehouse. Derick Almena designed the layout. He never built the stairs. They were there when he got there,” Briggs said, adding, “If living in the Ghost Ship was enough to ask for a conviction, every tenant who paid rent every month to keep the place going should be on trial.”
To convict Harris of criminal negligence, the jury will have to find that he did not act as a reasonable person would have acted under the same conditions. Briggs picked that standard apart, telling jurors jury Oakland Fire Lt. Salvador Garcia – a firefighter and a fire inspector – attended a Christmas party at the space in 2014 and “he didn’t see anything wrong with the Ghost Ship when he was there.”
Social workers also visited because Almena had his children living there at one point, Briggs said, and they too seemed unconcerned.
“CPS was in and out of that warehouse and they cleared it,” Briggs added, noting they weren’t troubled by the missing sprinklers or the staircase. “They didn’t think the stairs were weird. Why would Max Harris?”
He added: “I wish somebody would have told Max it was dangerous. I wish somebody would have told Max there was a problem. Because he would have done something.”
Almena’s attorney Tony Serra said his client was not a “malignant fiend” or “bossy, terrible human being,” as prosecutors have portrayed him, but an artist who wanted to be surrounded with music, dancing and yoga – the victim of a conspiracy by the city of Oakland to cover up its liability in a pending civil lawsuit.
“Do you think he would risk his children? Because to find him guilty, you must say that he was so indifferent, so reckless that he would sacrifice his family,” Serra said.
Serra said city witnesses, including Oakland’s then-assistant fire marshal Maria Sabatini, who allegedly toured the Ghost Ship after an arson attempt there in September 2014, lied on the stand about not having been inside the warehouse.
“They wouldn’t admit they went inside. They’d rather lie and perjure themselves. Why did they do that? Because they know they have a duty and a responsibility. It was obvious people were living there. They have a responsibility to the public to do their duty and that duty was to report it, red-tag it, seek an eviction, seek the appropriate remedy,” Serra said.
“Oakland has been sued, Oakland PD has been sued. CPS has been sued. Millions of dollars in recovery is possible if they admit they saw it and did nothing. Oakland is going to be liable. This is there conspiracy to subvert the real facts, to protect Oakland, to create a scapegoat,” Serra said.
Serra said while the defense does not have to prove the fire was started by arsonists, it’s a theory of causation that raises reasonable doubt. He reminded jurors that several witnesses had testified seeing men in hoodies who said “no one will get out of the building, all will die in the fire,” and that other partygoers had smelled smoke and heard glass breaking outside.
“This was arson, there is no other logical explanation,” Serra said.
Closing arguments wrap Wednesday with the prosecution’s rebuttal.