September 5, 2019 / 10:06 PM / a month ago

No convictions in California trial over 'Ghost Ship' warehouse fire

OAKLAND, Calif. (Reuters) - A California jury on Thursday acquitted one of two men charged with manslaughter in an Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36 people in 2016 and failed to reach a verdict on similar charges against the second defendant.

The jury acquitted Max Harris, 29, of 36 counts of manslaughter and could not reach a verdict on the charges against Harris’ co-defendant, Derick Almena, 49, defense attorneys and Alameda County prosecutors said.

Both men ran a live-in artists’ colony at the warehouse, which was nicknamed the Ghost Ship and erupted in flames on Dec. 2, 2016, prosecutors have said.

Prosecutors accused Almena and Harris of creating a ripe environment for the fire through their negligence, pointing to the 10,000-square-foot (900-square-metre) building’s lack of sprinklers and smoke detectors.

“Since the beginning of this case, our hearts have been with the families of the 36 victims that died in this unspeakable tragedy,” Kevin Dunleavy, Alameda County chief assistant district attorney, told a news conference.

It was not immediately clear if prosecutors would seek a second trial for Almena.

Attorneys for Almena and Harris said in closing arguments that police, fire and child welfare officials visited the building before the fire and never ordered tenants out because of risks at the building, according to Northern California public radio station KQED.

A spokeswoman for the Oakland mayor did not immediately respond to a request for comment on allegations by defense attorneys that city officials ignored dangerous conditions at the warehouse.

A civil lawsuit is being brought by families of victims against the defendants, city and county officials, the owners of the warehouse and others in Alameda County court.

Curtis Briggs, attorney for defendant Max Harris, speaks to members of the media after Harris was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter for the deadly 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 in Oakland, California, U.S., September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

It accuses local officials of knowing people lived without proper permits at the Ghost Ship and that the building was at risk for a fire and not acting to prevent a disaster.

“We look forward to going to trial in May to obtain the full measure of justice the victims and their families deserve,” Mary Alexander, an attorney for the families, said in a statement.

DANCE PARTY

The blaze, which erupted during an electronic dance music party that drew scores of visitors, was the deadliest fire at a building in the United States since 100 people died in 2003 in a fire at a Rhode Island nightclub.

Almena and Harris had each faced a maximum sentence of 39 years in prison if convicted of the 36 counts of manslaughter they each faced.

The outcome marked an abrupt reversal of fortune for the two men who were arrested in June 2017 and were close to a plea deal last year that would have sent them to prison. Alameda County Judge James Cramer rejected the agreement with prosecutors that would have resulted in a nine-year prison sentence for Almena and six years for Harris.

Families of the victims wanted a trial to learn more about how the tragedy unfolded, prosecutors said last year when the plea deal was abandoned.

Alberto Vega, whose 22-year-old brother, Alex, died in the fire, said he was “totally not satisfied” with Thursday’s verdict and would not want to attend court hearings if Almena were to be tried a second time.

“I don’t think I want to sit through that again,” he said.

Slideshow (15 Images)

Almena rented the warehouse and ran it as an art collective and communal residence for artists with limited income in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is known for high rents.

Harris, who helped run the warehouse, was present on the night of the fire, while Almena was offsite with his family.

Retired Oakland fire investigator Maria Sabatini testified during the trial that the fire appeared to have started in a northwest corner of the first floor, one level below where people gathered for the dance party. Investigators were unable to find the exact cause of the fire, Sabatini testified.

Writiing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Cynthia Osterman and Peter Cooney

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