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Couple face trial in Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36

FILE – This combination of June 2017 file booking photos provided by the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office shows Max Harris, left, and Derick Almena, at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, California. More than two years after 36 people died in the fire, Almena and Harris, the two men, who are faced with the cost of involuntary manslaughter, will be tried on charges that they allegedly illegally converted industrial building in a non-licensed event and artist live-work space. (Alameda County Sheriff’s Office via AP, File)

SAN FRANCISCO – Two men charged in fire that killed 36 concertgoers on a Northern California warehouse more than two years ago went on trial Tuesday after a judge rejected their plea agreement with the prosecutors.

Derick Almena and Max Harris are in prison because they were accused of involuntary manslaughter in June 2017, six months after the people at an electronic music show effort to escape the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland.

Almena, 49, is accused of illegally converting the industrial building into a non-licensed event and artist live-work space, while Harris, 29, received rent, and the scheduled concerts.

Prosecutors say that the couple stuffed the warehouse with highly flammable furniture, artwork and other knick-knacks that made it difficult for new visitors to quickly find the leaves during the fast-moving fire on Dec. 2, 2016.

The cause of the fire has never been determined, that the men lawyers have said will be a central argument of the defense. Opening statements in their trial were expected to begin Tuesday.

It comes after Almena and Harris each pleaded no contest to 36 counts of murder last summer, but a judge scuttled the plea deal after next of kin objected to the sentences as too lenient. Almena agreed to admit responsibility in exchange for a prison term of nine years, and Harris are agreed for a period of six years.

Judge James Cramer said he rejected the deal because he felt Almena not showing remorse. Prosecutors called on the request bargains were a package deal, so Cramer reluctantly rejected Harris agreement, but the judge said that he felt Harris was remorseful.

The men face up to 36 years in prison if convicted on all points.

The judge has a gag order that prevents lawyers from discussing the case in public. Before the order, Almena’s lawyer, Tony Serra, said he will argue that the fire could have been started by an arsonist, or other causes unrelated to the men, the management of the property.

Harris’ lawyer, Curtis Briggs, said for the joke, that he was planning to argue that others share in the blame for the fire, including the city of Oakland, the fire department and the warehouse of the lessor.

City codes require commercial buildings to be inspected annually, but the Oakland Fire department and city officials said they could find no reports of the inspectors are checking the building.

Almena and Harris also called are in the process of the victims of the families, who claimed that Oakland’s fire and building departments failed to check the warehouse every year is necessary. The lawsuits say inspectors would have discovered the illegal conversions.

Alex Katz, a spokesman for the city attorney, declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Warehouse owner Chor Ng, who has never been charged, will also face negligence lawsuits from the families. She and her lawyer, Stephen Dreher, do not return e-mail and phone messages seeking comment.

The lawsuits also claim Pacific Gas & Electric does not properly check, inspect and repair of electrical equipment for the power supply of the warehouse. PG&E said in a statement that he has cooperated with the investigation and that a review of the registration, found no electrical problems in the warehouse during the 10 years before the fire.

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