OAKLAND (CBS SF) — Ghost Ship warehouse creative director Max Harris said Wednesday that he was mistaken when he told investigators that the Oakland building’s back stairs were blocked during a fire in 2016 that killed 36 people.
In his third day on the witness stand 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 said, “I was trying to be helpful” when he spoke to two investigators with the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office when he was arrested on June 5, 2017.
But Harris, 29, said, “I had some misinformation at that time” and he had “heard from various sources, including the news, that the stairs were blocked.”
Harris said he now knows from listening to witness testimony at his trial, in which he and Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, 49, face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, that people were in fact able to go up and down the back stairs of the 10,000-square-foot building.
Harris, who was at the building’s front door, which was near the front stairs, and stamped the hands of the estimated 80 to 90 people who came to the party, said the back stairs “were on fire, but they weren’t blocked.”
When Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James pressed Harris by saying it was Harris’ belief when he was interviewed in 2017 that the back stairs were blocked, Harris responded by saying, “I now know that was not accurate.”
The question of whether people who were on the warehouse’s second floor, where the party was being held, were able to get down both stairways is a key issue in the trial.
For much of Wednesday’s testimony, the prosecution’s main focus was trying to catch Harris in a lie. Grace Lovio’s boyfriend Jason McCarty died in the deadly blaze. Lovio was in the courtroom all day listening to his testimony.
“He lies constantly. He will lie and they will put up some evidence to catch him in the lie and he’s doing it over and over again. I think the worst thing he could have done for his own case was to open his mouth,” Lovio said.
But defense attorney Curtis Briggs spoke highly of Harris, saying he did “an amazing job proving his innocence.” Briggs said the prosecution was desperately attempting to paint Harris as inconsistent.
“Let’s keep in mind witness after witness supported our arson theory…that it was intentional. They wouldn’t have made it out either way,” said Briggs.
Prosecutors allege that Harris and Almena are criminally responsible for the fire because the partygoers 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.
They also have attempted to assign blame to government officials, alleging that police, firefighters and child service workers all toured the warehouse before the fire and failed to report it for dangerous conditions.
In court, Harris testified that when he saw the news that people may have perished in the fire, he said, “I was sick to my stomach. It was unbelievable, surreal.” He also said he thought everyone was getting out.
“I believe he was responsible in creating the environment that was so deadly. He allowed people in. He knew the space and he didn’t tell anybody about the exits,” said Lovio.
“Look, my sympathies to the families. With all due respect to the families, there is a reason victims’ families are not jurors. Because they cannot be objective,” said Briggs.
Max Harris’s aunt has been in the court room and was visibly upset at times. She told KPIX 5 she and Harris’s mom talk by phone each day since his mom lives on the East Coast and can’t afford to travel to Oakland for the trial.
Derick Almena’s wife is expected to testify next week and then Almena himself will take the stand.
© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. KPIX 5 reporter Juliette Goodrich and Bay City News Service contributed to this report.