OAKLAND (KPIX 5/AP) — For two hours, victims’ families wept and clutched one another Tuesday while a prosecutor opened the Ghost Ship warehouse fire trial by showing photos of and methodically naming each of the 36 young partygoers who died in the 2016 blaze during an illegal music show.
Assistant District Attorney Casey Bates finished his opening statement by showing jurors text messages sent from two victims moments before they perished.
“I’m going to die now,” Nicole Siegrest wrote her mother.
“I love you,” Nicholas Walrath wrote his girlfriend. “Fire.”
The emotional opening came in the long-awaited trial of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena, 49, and creative director Max Harris, 29, on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Bates said the two men violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease by turning it into a living space and hosting underground music parties there.
- COMPLETE COVERAGE: Deadly Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire
Among the evidence Bates presented was the lease with building owner Eva Ng that Almena signed on Nov. 10, 2013, made clear that the 10,000-square-foot space was only to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective and for building theatrical sets.
No other use, such as using the building as a living space, was permitted at the space, which Almena called the Satya Yuga Collective, Bates said.
The prosecutor said Almena scoffed at co-leaseholder Nicholas Bouchard when he expressed concern that Almena was violating the terms of the lease.
Bates said when a consultant described the building as “a death trap” because it lacked fire alarms, fire extinguishers and other safety measures and was packed with combustible materials, Almena joked that the building should be called “the Satya Yuga death trap.”
Bates alleged that Almena and Harris ordered people who moved into the warehouse to tell others that the building wasn’t being used as a residence and instead was used as an artists’ collective 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“They took steps to hide the fact that they were living in that space,” Bates said, alleging that up to 25 people lived at the building.
Bates also played a videotape of Almena telling an Oakland police officer in January 2015, “Nobody lives here — we build sets here.”
Almena and Harris are charged with one count of involuntary manslaughter for each of the 36 fire victims.
Bates began his opening statement in dramatic fashion by showing photos of each of the 36 victims and reading their names aloud one by one, causing many people in the packed courtroom of Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson to sob.
He said all of the victims died of smoke inhalation.
Tuesday afternoon, the defense began their opening statements. Harris’ lawyer Curtis Briggs said his shouldn’t be on trial and alleged that much of the blame for the fire should be placed on other people, such as Ng and her family and police and fire officials who he said knew about the dangers at the warehouse and didn’t take action to remedy those dangers.
Briggs’ biggest bombshell came when he told jurors, “The evidence will show you that this [the deadly fire] was an arson and was intentionally set.”
Briggs said, “The evidence will show that there was a motive” for the fire but he didn’t say what that motive was.
The defense lawyer said people who were at the party saw people they didn’t recognize and one witness said she saw seven to 10 Latino males walk by the warehouse as it was burning and heard one of them say, “The way we put that wood in there they’ll never come out.”
“The people who set this fire are not on trial. When people were running out of the warehouse during the fire, Max Harris was running in to save people,” Briggs told jurors.
Supporters of Harris have been at nearly every court proceeding.
“Each day Max Harris is in jail, we are preventing solving the root of the problem,” said supporter Danielle Silva outside of the courtroom.
Almena’s attorney Tony Serra is expected to deliver his opening statements Wednesday morning.