OAKLAND, Calif. – Two California men will go to trial on involuntary manslaughter charges in the deaths of 36 partygoers in the worst building fire in the U.S. in more than a decade, a judge ruled Thursday.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Horner cited testimony describing the Oakland warehouse as a “death trap” and said Derick Almena and Max Harris had a “substantial” role in managing it. The ruling came at the end of a dayslong hearing that provided a glimpse at prosecutors’ case against the pair.
“I find there is sufficient cause to believe both defendants are legally responsible for what happened on that terrible, terrible night, and are legally responsible for the deaths of 36 individuals,” the judge said.
Almena rented the warehouse known as the Ghost Ship that burned on Dec. 2, 2016, during an electronic music concert. Harris lived there, and a witness testified that Harris was in charge of the unpermitted concert.
The warehouse had been illegally converted into living space for artists, was cluttered and had no fire sprinklers. Prosecutors say the men knowingly created a firetrap and deceived the building’s owner, police and fire officials about people living there.
The two have pleaded not guilty and say they are being scapegoated. Tony Serra, an attorney for Almena, said the judge’s premise that the building was a death trap was wrong.
“It was orderly. It was clean. It was wholesome,” Serra said. “My client did everything humanly possible within his financial means to make it that way.”
The men’s attorneys said they expected the ruling. Serra said prosecutors will have a higher standard of proof when the case goes before a jury, and Harris’ attorney, Curtis Briggs, said he expected to prevail.
Oakland was criticized following the blaze for a series of failures that allowed the warehouse to function illegally despite numerous complaints to city officials.
City Fire Marshal Miguel Trujillo testified Thursday that he did not find any records of requests by firefighters to inspect the warehouse. His testimony came two days after fire Capt. George Freelen said in court that he visited the warehouse in 2014 and reported his concerns about potential fire danger to Trujillo’s office.
On the opening day of the hearing, Aaron Marin, a musician who lived at the warehouse, called it a “museum” filled with musical instruments, trailers and other items. But he testified that he didn’t consider it a fire hazard while he was there.
Marin was able to escape the flames the night of the fire by jumping out an upstairs window. He said the window was blocked by a giant projection screen, so it wasn’t visible to most people.
A second witness, Jose Avalos, testified that he was among 15 to 25 people who lived at the warehouse at any given time and that he paid his rent of $565 a month to Harris.
But he disputed that Harris was second-in-command at the warehouse and said everyone pitched in to maintain the community.
Avalos also said police were called to the building several times to help with evictions before the fire and even knew the leaseholder by name.
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