OAKLAND — The courtroom was silent as Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James showed the photos of the 36 people who perished in the Ghost Ship fire — except for the audible sobs of the victims’ families present in the courtroom on Monday.
“When you go to an event … we all expect to go home after. Back to our loved ones, to our jobs,” said James. “But for 36 people, that didn’t happen.”
It was an emotional hearing at the start of the closing arguments in the involuntary manslaughter case of Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29. James began by telling the 12-person jury that it was the lack of notice, time and ability to get out of the building that was the difference between life and death for the three dozen victims. Almena and Harris are charged with 36 counts each of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths.
As James showed the photos of the victims on the courtroom’s TVs in the packed audience, family members put arms around each other as their loved one’s photo came up on the screen, wiping away tears that cascaded quickly down their faces. It’s these family members that have come to court nearly every day of the almost four-month trial, listening to testimony about how the alleged actions of Almena and Harris could have led to their loved ones’ deaths.
James called Almena a “narcissist” and Harris “no innocent bystander” as he went through the evidence presented against the two men during the trial.
He argued that the defendants acted with criminal negligence in the entire life of the Ghost Ship warehouse, from its inception on Nov. 10, 2013, when Almena co-signed the lease, to the deadly fire the night of Dec. 2, 2016.
“Every minute they were in there, they were criminally negligent,” James said.
As a bookend to his arguments, James also ended on an emotional note that left few in the audience with dry eyes. He went through the timeline of the fire that night, including the texts that victims sent their loved ones, and the very first 911 calls.
“I’m gonna die now” texted Nicole Siegrist to her mother, Carol Cidlik, who was present in court. Cidlik began crying, and rested her head on another mother’s next to her, Colleen Dolan, whose daughter Chelsea also died in that fire.
It was at that moment on Dec. 2, 2016, between 11:15 and 11:25 p.m. that people like Aaron Marin or Samuel Maxwell were making their escape to get out.
“Sam told us he chose to die on this stairs rather than stay upstairs,” James said. “It was his will to survive that got him off those stairs.”
Maxwell, who is now in a wheelchair and has difficulty speaking because of his injuries from the fire, testified during the trial. James said it was Maxwell’s sheer “will to survive,” not Harris or anyone else that helped him escape that night. There’s been testimony from witnesses that Harris stood at the entrance of the warehouse with his cellphone light as a guide for those getting out.
The prosecution is alleging that there were nine violations of the Oakland fire code, including not obtaining permits for assembly, storage of vehicles and failure to provide fire sprinklers or fire alarms. The jury must decide if these acts of Almena and Harris were a “substantial factor” in causing the deaths of the 36 people.
“These individuals did nothing to ensure the safety of the people who came through that door,” James said.
Almena and Harris “acted unreasonably” when they did not gather the proper permits, he said. Permits would have meant a guaranteed inspection by the city of Oakland.
“Had they taken the time to do that, we may not be here,” James said.
Things such as sprinklers, or alarms, would have given the people inside the Ghost Ship trying to escape something they didn’t have that night — more time, or more notice, he said.
The Ghost Ship warehouse itself wasn’t designed for people to live in it, let alone for parties on the second floor, he said. Smoke rose through the floorboards of the second floor, meaning the people up there were literally suspended in smoke, “the worst possible place you can be,” James said.
The warehouse was a storage facility, and when Almena and co-signer Nico Brouchard signed the lease back in 2013, they agreed with the Ng family owners that it was to be turned into an artist collective.
But James argued that as soon as Almena signed the lease, he allowed people to live inside and for RVs to be parked inside.
James said Almena didn’t acquire the proper permits when he first got the warehouse. For example, Almena was told by a friend and contractor that to get proper stairs it would cost $3,000. But instead, Almena did things his way, and got a stair kit from Home Depot, James said.
“Even creative people understand the difference between right and wrong,” James said. “Mr. Almena is a narcissist. … Rules be damned, he’s going to do things his way.
There was testimony that about 80 people were bottlenecked at the start of the stairs on the second floor, trying to escape. Some witnesses described the stairs as rickety, narrow and uneven.
“That’s what cheap stairs looks like,” James said, showing the jury photos of the charred front staircase.
But Harris was “no innocent bystander” or innocent tenant either, James said. Harris exerted control over the Ghost Ship as manager: He collected rent, didn’t pay for rent himself and coordinated events, including the one on Dec. 2, 2016. He also was the only tenant other than Almena to have contact with the Ngs, and even negotiated on behalf of the art collective.