Trial kicked off this week for two men facing involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with the deadly Ghost Ship fire, more than two years after the fast-moving blaze killed 36 people in an Oakland, California, warehouse.
Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29, who lived in and ran the artist collective there, both face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter over the Dec. 2, 2016, fire.
The men are accused of failing to implement safety measures at the space, including providing adequate emergency equipment and exits. Both defendants have been in jail since their arrests in June 2017.
The trial began Tuesday at the Rene C. Davidson courthouse in Alameda County. In his opening statement, prosecutor Casey Bates showed photos of the victims and shared text messages sent from inside Ghost Ship as the fire ripped through what had begun as a warehouse party, according to local Fox station KTVU.
One victim wrote, “I’m going to die,” according to Bates. Another sent a message to a loved one reading: “I love you. Fire.”
Bates said the partygoers had “no notice, no time and no exit.” The prosecutor said he would show evidence that the 10,000-square-foot space contained just one smoke detector and one exit sign.
Almena, the master tenant who leased Ghost Ship to other artists, failed to secure permits to improve the space, Bates argued on Tuesday. Harris, who acted as creative director at the art space and collected rent from other tenants, hosted and promoted the party where three dozen people died, the prosecutor said.
Curtis Briggs, an attorney for Harris, also delivered an opening statement on Tuesday. Briggs introduced new allegations that the fire may have been set by arsonists.
“The evidence will show that this was an arson,” Briggs said, according to Courthouse News Service. “The evidence will show that the reason these people perished, the reason they didn’t have notice, time, an escape route, is because it was designed that way.”
The defense attorney also sought to distance Harris from Almena and downplay his client’s title as “creative director.” Harris acted more as a glorified janitor, while Almena called the shots, Briggs argued, according to The Associated Press.
“Max doesn’t tell people ‘no,’” Briggs said, according to Courthouse News. “Max just serves.”
Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra, is scheduled to give his opening statement to the jury on Wednesday. Testimony from hundreds of witnesses and 12,000 pages of discovery are to follow, setting the stage for a trial that could drag on for months.
The families of the victims have also filed negligence lawsuits targeting warehouse owner Chor Ng, as well as Pacific Gas & Electric. Bates argued that Almena’s lease made him solely responsible for maintenance and safety at the building. PG&E has said that it reviewed its records and found no electrical problems at the warehouse in the years leading up to the fire.