OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Ghost Ship warehouse creative director Max Harris reluctantly admitted on Tuesday that he lied to a police officer when he claimed that no one lived at the 10,000-square-foot building in Oakland where 36 people were killed in a fire in 2016.
In his second day on the witness stand in his own defense in his trial on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the blaze at a music party at the warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, Harris at first said he was merely being evasive in his comments to Oakland police Officer Brian Kline several months before the fire.
But after Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James showed jurors, for the second time in the trial, Kline’s body camera video of their conversation and asked Harris if his comments were a lie, Harris said, “If that’s how you want to look at it, sure.”
Harris, 29, said he was being evasive with Kline because he feared that if he told the officer that people were living at the warehouse, he and the others would be evicted.
When James asked Harris if he was afraid he would be evicted because the arrangement at the warehouse “wasn’t a legal living situation,” Harris described the situation as “an alternative living situation” and wasn’t sure that the people who lived there would have the same legal protections as people who live in standard apartment buildings.
Prosecutors allege that Harris and Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 49, who faces the same charges, are criminally responsible for the fire because the people at the party didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.
Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.
But defense attorneys allege that the fire was an act of arson that the two defendants couldn’t have prevented.
Harris has spent much of his two days on the witness stand trying to minimize his role in running the warehouse and organizing the party at which the fire occurred.
Harris told his lawyer Tyler Smith that the reason he described himself as the warehouse’s “executive director” in an email to Kai Ng, one of the building’s landlords, is “I was trying to sound officious” when he was asking if the people at the warehouse could expand into an adjacent space where the lease for an auto body repair shop was expiring.
In an email that was read aloud in court, Ng said he was denying Harris’ request because the people at the warehouse hadn’t “paid a cent on your electricity” for many months.
Ng also wrote, “In each visit (to the warehouse) in the last 12 months “I’ve found the site to have increasingly worse conditions.”