Ghost Ship fire defendants plead not guilty, prepare for jury trial

Audrey McNamara/File

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More than a year after the deadly “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire, defendants Derick Almena and Max Harris — each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter — plead not guilty at a hearing Tuesday morning.

In the tragic incident, 36 individuals died after being trapped inside the artists’ collective warehouse known as Ghost Ship, for which Almena was the master tenant and Harris was the creative director. Almena and Harris were first charged with felonies by the Alameda County Superior Court on June 5.

A declaration in support of probable cause, compiled by the District Attorney’s office, outlined the defendants’ allegedly “reckless” practices in the years leading up to the Ghost Ship fire. The document states that their actions “amounted to a disregard for human life” for many reasons, including that they allegedly deceived the police and fire departments, conducted unpermitted and uninspected construction, and allowed for the storage of highly flammable materials.

“Almena’s and Harris’ actions were reckless, creating a high risk of death,” Alameda County District Attorney’s Office inspector Cristina Harbison alleged in the report. “Their reckless actions were the proximate cause of death of the 36 individuals trapped inside the warehouse when the fire started.”

Almena and Harris now face a follow-up trial July 16, 2018, according to Teresa Drenick, the assistant district attorney for Alameda County.

As reported by multiple news sources, Tony Serra, an attorney representing Almena in the case, said city and county officials were to blame for the incident. Curtis Briggs, the defense attorney for Max Harris, also maintained that Harris was innocent in a press release.

“(The defendants) maintain their innocence,” said Fredrick Berry, a paralegal for Briggs. “That’s the pervading theme of this whole thing.”

Neither Briggs nor Serra could be reached for comment as of press time.

Almena and Harris will return to court for a bail hearing March 21 as they await their final hearing, which is scheduled for July.

Contact Miyako Iwata at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dailycalmiyako.