On the night of December 2, 2016, an upbeat party at the Ghost Ship, a DIY art space that was housed in a repurposed warehouse in Oakland, California, ended in a horrific tragedy. A conflagration that consumed the warehouse, the cause of which investigators still cannot decisively determine, claimed the lives of 36 partygoers. On Thursday, September 5, after a five-month trial against the party’s organizers, an Oakland jury acquitted Max Harris, Ghost Ship’s creative director, of involuntary manslaughter, but it remained hung on the case of the warehouse’s master tenant, Derick Almena.
Harris and Almena faced up to 39 years in prison if convicted on all 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter in the case. Harris was released from jail in Dublin, California on Thursday while Almena remained in jail, awaiting the prosecutors’ decision on retrying him.
The case against Harris and Almena would have come to a different conclusion if plea deals that the two won in July 2018 were not overturned just a month later. At the time, the defendants agreed to plead guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter in return for six years in a county jail for Harris and nine years for Almena. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Almena would have spent 3.5 years and Harris less than two, assuming good conduct credits. Alas, a different Superior Court Judge, James Cramer, ruled against the plea deals in August following appeals by the victims’ families.
To this day, fire investigators still have not been able to determine the cause of the fire. The prosecutors in the case suggested it was caused by an electrical failure. The defendants’ guilt, they said, lies in holding a party at a firetrap. The defense attorneys, on the other hand, alleged the fire was an act of arson.
Survivors who testified during the trial reported only a short few moments between noticing smoke and having to flee for their lives. In their testimonies, they described choking on thick, black smoke, and suffering from facial burns while escaping the furnace. The survivors reported seeing no sprinkler system or illuminated exit signs to guide them out of the building, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. And while fleeing the fire in the building’s second floor, they had to descend a narrow staircase made out of old wood and pallets, other survivors said.
However, only 10 of the 12 jurors could agree that Almena was guilty of negligence and in hosting a party at a lethal firetrap. Almina’s mistrial left many of the victim’s relatives disgruntled. “I’m just stunned,” Alberto Vega, whose brother Alex Vega was lost in the fire, said in a press conference outside the courtroom. “I feel sick to my stomach. It was obvious what rules were broken.”
Harris’s lawyer Curtis Briggs accused the City of Oakland of ignoring major warning signs during multiple inspections the fire department held at Ghost Ship. “Not one city official had the courage to get on the stand and tell the truth,” Briggs said, proclaiming that Oakland now has “an opportunity to clean house and become accountable.” His client, he said, “Should never have been charged.”
“It’s not about retribution, revenge, being out for blood or any of that,” Chris Allen, who lost his sister Amanda in the fire, told reporters outside the courthouse on Wednesday. “We’re here for accountability.”
In addition to the criminal lawsuit, 13 families are pursuing civil litigation against the city and the landlord, Chor Nar Siu Ng, who bought the building in 1988. “We’re moving toward trial and presenting a case to a jury,” Mary Alexander, the attorney representing the families, said. “I think that the goal of these families is for justice. It is for holding accountable those who took away the lives of their children.”