OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) – Black smoke, darkness, no exit. So describes the final moments of 36 men and women who died by smoke inhalation from a fire that swept through an Oakland warehouse in December 2016.
Their names and photos opened the first day of closing arguments Monday in the trial of two men blamed for their deaths.
“Imagine the smoke. Eventually the lights go out. It’s disorienting. There’s no one there to help you out,” said prosecutor Autrey James.
Derick Almena, the leaseholder of the former warehouse-turned-communal living space, and Max Harris, its purported creative director, each face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of those men and women in the fire, all of them there to see a concert on the building’s second floor.
Nicole Siegrist, 29, was one of those people. James read the jury a text message she sent to her mom, who lived in Hawaii. “I’m gonna die now,” she said. Siegrist’s mother Carol Cidlik, seated at the front of the courtroom, began to weep.
James said so many deaths could have been prevented had Almena bothered to install mandatory fire safety upgrades in the warehouse, such as sprinklers, smoke alarms and fire exits, before illegally converting it into an event space and living quarters initially called the Satya Yuga artist collective and later the Ghost Ship.
Instead, the revelers were left fumbling in the dark as smoke emanated through the floorboards, 80 of them eventually converging at the building’s chokepoint – a narrow rickety staircase Almena had supposedly built himself.
James took a methodical approach in his closing, saying the Ghost Ship collective was doomed from the moment Almena signed the lease in 2013.
While Almena told owner Eva Ng that he planned to use the building as a workshop to build theatrical sets, within days he began moving people in, James said. Never designed to be a living space, by December 2016 the Ghost Ship was home to 25 people.
James showed the 12-person jury pictures of the space overstuffed with electronics, large appliances, bicycles, pianos, and even two RVs. “Within days of signing that lease people began to move in. And with people come all the items they have,” James said.
He said Almena had been warned several times by friends to bring the space up to code, but he resisted because of the expense and because upgrades required permits that would bring on inspections which would spell the end of Almena’s rental income.
James told jurors that Almena “laughed” at suggestions of safety improvements to the space, saying, “this isn’t how we do things.”
“Mr. Almena is a narcissist,” James said. “It’s his way and only his way, rules be damned.”
James said Harris is also culpable since he helped run the Ghost Ship, collecting rent, drawing up informal rental agreements for new tenants and throwing events at the space. It was Harris who greeted guests at the door the night of the concert.
James also showed the jury some videotapes of both Harris and Almena telling police officers that the Ghost Ship was not a 24-hour artist workshop, that no one lived there, and that it was not a concert venue.
“Why lie? He wanted to protect was happening there – his gallery, his art space. He wanted to make sure everyone had a place to stay. He also wanted to make sure the money kept coming in,” James said.
As for Harris, James said he went along with the lie because he was afraid he and his friends would be evicted.
James reminded the jury of Samuel Maxwell, who was one of the last to escape the fire down the stairs, saying Maxwell lived because “he decided he’d rather die on the stairs than on the second floor. His will to survive got him down those stairs.”
The others, James said, “never had a chance” because they had no notice, no time and no way of escape.
Harris’ attorney Curtis Briggs will make his closing argument Tuesday. Judge Trina Thompson excused the jury early, saying they needed a respite “given the intensity and heaviness of the day.”
After Briggs, Almena’s attorney Tony Serra will have his final shot at the jury which is expected to get the case early next week.