Men face trial for fatal California warehouse fire

FILE – In this July 3, 2018, file photo, attorneys Tony Serra, center, and Brian Getz, right, represent Derick Almena, speak with journalists at a courthouse in Oakland, California. More than two years after 36 people died in the fire, Almena and Max Harris, the two men, who are faced with the charges 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. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

SAN FRANCISCO – More than two years after the 36 concert-goers died in a fire in a Northern California warehouse, two men face trial on involuntary manslaughter charges.

Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29, is in jail because they were accused in June 2017, six months after the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland during an electronic music show. The plaintiffs claim that Almena illegally converted industrial building in a non-licensed event and artist live-work space. They say Harris to receive rent and the planned concerts.

An Alameda County jury of nine women and three men was chosen from a pool of 480 prospective jurors and sworn in Monday. Opening statements are expected to begin Tuesday in an Oakland courtroom.

Almena rented the building, which is only allowed for the storing of industrial and commercial products. Instead, Almena converted the dilapidated building into a series of rooms, places for the parking of campers and concert halls. 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 Dec. 2, 2016 fire. The cause of the fire has never been determined, that the men lawyers have said will be a central argument of the defense.

It is the second time that the matter was nearing resolution. Almena and Harris each pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter this past summer as part of a plea bargain, but a judge in August sunk to the offers after the families of the victims objected to the sentences as too light. Almena agreed to admit responsibility in exchange for a sentence of nine years and Harris are agreed for a period of six years.

Judge James Cramer said he rejected the plea deal because he felt Almena not showing remorse. Because the Alameda County district attorney’s office urged the plea bargains were a package deal, Cramer reluctantly rejected Harris agreement, but the judge said that he found out that he was remorseful.

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

In the current case, the judge has a gag order that prevents lawyers from discussing the case in public. Before the order was imposed, 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 before the gag order was issued that he was planning to propose that others, such as the city of Oakland and the fire brigade, as well as the warehouse of the lessor, the share of the blame for the fire. City codes require commercial buildings to be inspected annually, but the Oakland Fire department and city officials said they could find no records of inspectors to investigate the building.

Warehouse owner Chor Ng, who has never brought, is also being sued for negligence in the lawsuits of the families. She and her lawyer, Stephen Dreher, do not return e-mail and phone messages seeking comment.

The men are also named in lawsuits have been filed alleging that the Oakland Fire department and the Building Department failed to check the warehouse every year is necessary. The lawsuit says inspectors would have discovered the illegal conversions.

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

The lawsuits claim electric provider Pacific Gas & Electric also not good to check, inspect and repair of electrical equipment which the power to 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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