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)
OAKLAND, California. – For two hours, survivors wept and held each other Tuesday during a public prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case by showing photos of and methodically to appoint each of the 36 revellers who died in a Northern California warehouse fire.
Alameda County deputy district attorney Casey Bates then recounted for jurors the harrowing stories of two survivors who barely escaped the rapid fire and choking smoke while panic and indecision seized most of the victims of attending a certain music concert in an illegally converted Oakland warehouse.
The operators of the warehouse, Derick Almena, and Max Harris, are in prison because they were charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter after the December 2016 inferno.
Bates said prosecutors charged the men because they are illegally converted into a warehouse zoned only for industrial use in the house and the venue filled “from floor to ceiling with unconventional, combustible materials.”
Bates said that the two failed to provide adequate safety equipment, exits and signs. No one heard the signal to fire alarm go off that night, Bates said, giving the partygoers without notification of a fire had broken out. The warehouse also lacked sprinklers to slow the fast-moving fire and give them time to escape.
“They died because they have no knowledge, no time and no outputs,” Bates said.
He ended by showing jurors text messages sent from two victims moments before they perished.
“I’m going to die now,” Nicole Siegrest wrote to her mother.
“I love you,” Nicholas Walrath wrote to his girlfriend. The “fire”.
Lawyers for Almena and Harris were scheduled to make their opening statements Tuesday afternoon.
Almena, 49, is charged with 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 stocked 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.
Both 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 take responsibility in exchange for a period of nine years in prison, 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 each if convicted on all points.
The judge in an order that prevents lawyers from discussing the case in public. Before the order, Almena’s lawyer, Tony Serra, said that he would claim that the fire might have started by an arsonist, or other causes unrelated to the men, the management of the property.
Harris’ lawyer, Curtis Briggs, said before the start of the command 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 fire department and city officials said they found 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 litigation.
Warehouse owner Chor Ng, who has never been charged, will also face negligence lawsuits from the families. Bates said that the type of lease Almena signed him fully responsible for maintenance of the building and the safety of the maintenance.
Ng and her attorney, 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.