OAKLAND (CBS SF) — The testimony of an important witness for Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena was stricken from the record on Wednesday after he failed to return to court to allow prosecutors to finish cross-examining him.

Troy Altieri is one of four witnesses that Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra has called to the witness stand to try to rebut the testimony by Oakland Acting Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini last month that she didn’t go inside the Oakland warehouse when she investigated an arson fire on a couch on the sidewalk outside the building on Sept. 26, 2014.

The witnesses’ testimony is important because defense lawyers for Almena, 49, and Ghost Ship creative director, Max Harris 29, allege that police officers, firefighters and child service workers are at least partly responsible for a blaze at the warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue on Dec. 2, 2016, that killed 36 people.

Defense lawyers say authorities who visited the building on multiple occasions never told the people who lived there that they thought it was unsafe or told them to make changes to bring it up to code.

Almena and Harris are standing trial on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, as prosecutors allege they 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, which only called for it to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective and for building theatrical sets, by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.

When he took the witness stand late last Thursday afternoon, Altieri said he flips houses for a living and did some construction work for Almena at the warehouse even though he didn’t have a contractor’s license.

Altieri said he was at the warehouse at the time of the 2014 fire and three or four firefighters came inside the building. He said the group of firefighters, including at least one woman, wound up dancing in Almena’s bedroom and “it was really mellow.”

Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James began cross-examining Altieri late Thursday and was scheduled to continue questioning him when the trial resumed on Tuesday but Altieri failed to appear.

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who is presiding over the high-profile trial, issued a $50,000 bench warrant for Altieri on Tuesday but held it in case he showed up later in the day or on Wednesday.

When court adjourned for the day on Wednesday, Serra said he still hasn’t been able to find Altieri and asked that the bench warrant be canceled and that he not be arrested.

Thompson canceled the bench warrant and said she is striking Altieri’s testimony from the record and will tell jurors to disregard it.

Thompson is now giving the jurors in the lengthy case, which began with opening statements on April 30, an extended break and the trial won’t resume until July 8, when Almena is expected to testify.

Almena’s wife Micah Allison, who testified most of the day on Tuesday, completed her testimony Wednesday morning.

Also on Wednesday, a 28-year veteran of the Oakland Fire Department took the stand, and said he did not have safety concerns about the warehouse after visiting it three years before the deadly blaze.

Oakland Firefighter Daniel Keenan was sworn in dressed in his uniform, and showed the jury on a map of the first floor, where he came in to retrieve his daughter’s belongings. Keenan was helping his daughter move out of the building.

Keenan, who in his younger days as a musician, had lived in a similar housing situation in San Francisco, told the courtroom that after coming and going, he did not have any bad feelings about the warehouse.

“The space seemed fine,” said Keenan, a specialist in hazardous materials.

“You didn’t report to anyone that you felt the warehouse was in violation of the fire code?” asked Serra.

“I did not,” said Keenan.

The defense team has been trying to shift blame to firefighters, police officers, and social workers who visited the site multiple times, but did not report any violations, and claims the city bears some of the responsibility for the tragedy.

But prosecutors allege master tenant Derick Almena created a death trap by converting the 10,000 square foot space into living quarters, in violation of the lease agreement.

Serra says Keenan’s eyewitness account, even though it occurred three years prior to the fatal fire that killed 36 people, undercuts the prosecution’s argument.

“He’s a fire person, he knows what the law is. He knows whether or not a fire code violation occurred. And in essence, he said it was OK,” said Serra.

 

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