SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Defense attorneys for Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena said Friday that they don’t believe Almena is criminally responsible for the blaze that killed 36 people in Oakland’s Fruitvale district last December.
Veteran lawyer Tony Serra, the lead defense attorney for Almena, 47, alleged at a packed news conference at his office in San Francisco that Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley acted “in bad faith” and had “ulterior motives” earlier this week when she filed 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter against Almena and tenant Max Harris, 27, for the fire that broke out during a crowded dance party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Dec. 2.
Serra said Almena “is being made a scapegoat for persons and entities that are culpable for this tragedy.”
He said that among those entities are the Oakland Police Department, the Oakland Fire Department and the Alameda County sheriff’s office for not cracking down on safety issues at the warehouse and PG&E for causing electrical problems there.
Serra alleged that O’Malley is “politically ambitious to be the next state attorney general” and that she is bringing the case against Almena and Harris so she can present herself as an “avenging angel.”
Serra said Almena, who was arrested in Lake County on Monday and was arraigned on Thursday, may be liable in civil court for the unsafe conditions at the warehouse but said Almena is not criminally liable because he thinks the prosecution won’t be able to prove that Almena understood the peril that existed at the warehouse and failed to do anything about it.
Serra said Almena lived at the warehouse with his wife and two children and he never would have done so if he thought his family was in danger there.
Fellow defense lawyer Jeffrey Krasnoff alleged that the Oakland Fire Department contributed to the large loss of life at the warehouse by not putting up a ladder to rescue people who were trapped on its second floor and by cutting a hole in the building’s roof, which he said “drew the fire up to the second floor and accelerated the fire.”
Serra said, “What the Fire Department did was terribly negligent” and said if firefighters had cut a hole in the building’s side instead of in its roof most of the people who were at the warehouse that night wouldn’t have died.
In response to Serra’s barrage of allegations, District Attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick said the office “holds itself to the highest of professional standards when prosecuting criminal matters; we do not try our cases in the media.”
Drenick said, “Our ethical duty as prosecutors is to analyze the facts and apply the law to those facts, filing criminal charges only when there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime.”
City of Oakland officials didn’t respond to a request for a comment on Serra’s allegations.
In announcing the charges against Almena and Harris on Monday, O’Malley said the two men “knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape, filled it with human beings, and are now facing the consequences of their deadly actions.”
District Attorney Inspector Cristina Harbison wrote in a probable cause statement that neither the terms of the warehouse’s lease nor local statutes permitted it to be used as a residence.
Harbison said Almena “allowed and encouraged tenants to use non-conventional building materials that he collected to create their living spaces,” including recycled dry wood such as fence boards, shingles, window frames, wooden sculptures, tapestries, pianos, organs, wooden furniture, RV trailers, rugs and other “ramshackle pieces.”
She said, “Almena substantially increased the risk to those living, working or visiting the building by storing enormous amounts of flammable material inside the warehouse,” such as wood, which “created an extremely dangerous fire load.”
Joining Serra, Krasnoff and co-counsel Kyndra Miller at the news conference, Almena’s wife, Micah Allison, said, “I’m overcome with grief and very troubled by the arrest of my husband and my dear friend Max Harris.”
Allison said, “We are all grieving. My husband is a good person, Max Harris is a good person. They are not greedy, selfish or reckless.”
She said, “I just hope that everyone can start to have a little bit of compassion for everyone involved in what happened that night.”
Harris, who was arrested in Los Angeles County on Monday, was transferred to the Santa Rita Jail in Dublin on Thursday and is scheduled to be arraigned on Tuesday.
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