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Manslaughter charges filed in Ghost Ship fire

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Derick Ion Almena. Photo: Courtesy Lake County Sheriff's<br>office
Derick Ion Almena. Photo: Courtesy Lake County Sheriff's
office  

Two men have each been charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the December 2016 fire at Oakland's Ghost Ship warehouse that killed three dozen people.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced the charges against Derick Ion Almena, 37, and Max Harris, 27, at a news conference Monday, June 5, just hours after they were arrested.

The men "knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape, then filled that area with human beings," said O'Malley.

According to probable cause statements, Almena was the lease holder on the warehouse and Harris acted as the "creative director," collected rent from tenants, and performed other duties. Both men lived in the building, located at 1305 31st Avenue.

"With disregard to the risk," Almena and Harris "deceived" police and other officials, allowing people to live at the site and holding unpermitted events there, said O'Malley.

They blocked one exit, leaving only one way to get out of the building, which had "no fire suppression or lighted pathways," she said.

Additionally, O'Malley said, they "very purposefully" crammed the site with "highly flammable" materials. The building reportedly was filled with pianos, rugs, artwork, and other objects.

The December 2 blaze at the warehouse started as people gathered for an electronic music concert. O'Malley said that there was a "nearly impossible labyrinth of the defendants' making to get out of that building."

Each man faces 39 years in prison if convicted of the charges.

Attorneys for Almena, including well-known defense attorney J. Tony Serra, said in a statement that they'll "vigorously defend" him.

"We believe that these charges represent no less than a miscarriage of justice, and we are confident that this attempt to make a scapegoat out of our client will fail," the attorneys stated.

Information on Harris' attorney wasn't immediately available.

Almena was arrested in Lake County, said O'Malley. He's in custody in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California on $1,080,000 bail. His arraignment was set for Thursday morning.

Harris, who O'Malley said was arrested in Los Angeles County, remained there in custody as of Monday on $1,080,000 bail.

The Alameda County Coroner's Bureau has determined that all 36 people who were killed in the fire died from smoke inhalation. At least three of the victims were transgender people.

In addition to those who were killed, O'Malley said that one man remains hospitalized with "serious respiratory injuries."

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

Although electrical wiring in the building has reportedly been suspected as what started the blaze, Theresa Drenick, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said, "The evidence was largely consumed in the fire itself. The cause of the fire will remain undetermined."

However, Drenick said, "That fact will not hamper" prosecutors' ability to proceed.

Families of some of the victims filed civil lawsuits in connection with the incident earlier this year. Records indicate several government agencies had failed to address problems at the warehouse despite years of reports to police and others.

In a statement, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf praised the charges filed by O'Malley "because they send a clear message: you won't get away with making a profit by cramming people into dangerous spaces or failing to maintain safe living conditions. ... We will never forget the victims who died in the tragic Ghost Ship fire. We can't bring loved ones back, but we can honor them by seeking justice."

Gehno Aviance, who knew some of the victims, told the Bay Area Reporter in a Facebook message, "As much as I would like to say that I am happy" about the arrests, "I feel the tragedy at the Ghost Ship is a symptom of a larger problem in the Bay Area and our country. The problem being a lack of affordable housing, especially for struggling artists."

O'Malley said artists "deserve to live and work in a space that is safe."

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