OAKLAND (CBS SF) — An Oakland police officer testified Tuesday that he shut down an illegal rave party at the Ghost Ship warehouse about 21 months before a fire during an illegal music concert at the Oakland facility killed 36 people.
The testimony by Officer Hector Chavez about the party on March 1, 2015, contradicts Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena’s statement to jurors last week that he that he didn’t allow debauchery or rave parties at the 10,000-square-foot warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.
Chavez also said Almena lied to him when he told him in late 2014 or early 2015 that no one lived at the building, which functioned as an artists’ collective but also as a residence at which up to 25 people lived.
The Oakland police officer was the final witness in the lengthy trial of Almena, 49, and Ghost Ship creative director Max Harris, 29, on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the blaze during a music party at the warehouse late on the night of Dec. 2, 2016.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Deadly Ghost Ship Fire
The trial began with opening statements on April 30 and testimony began on May 6.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson, who is presiding over the case, told jurors that closing arguments won’t begin until July 29 because she and the attorneys need time to review jury instructions and the approximately 170 exhibits in the case.
Thompson said jury deliberations are expected to begin on Aug. 5.
Alameda County prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the fire because the people at the music 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 building’s lease, which only called for it to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective by turning it into a living space and hosting underground music parties there.
But defense attorneys allege that the fire was an act or arson that Almena and Harris couldn’t have prevented.
They also say firefighters, police officers and other authorities who visited the building before the deadly fire in 2016 never told Almena and Harris that they thought it was unsafe or told them to make changes to bring it up to code.
Chavez said Tuesday that he went to the warehouse in the early morning hours of March 1, 2015, after a woman who was in the middle of a nearby street summoned him.
Chavez said the woman “was crying and was very emotional and afraid.”
The officer testified that the woman told him that she had just come from “an illegal rave party” which she had paid $25 to attend and party organizers were selling alcohol and people were selling and using drugs.
Chavez said the woman told him “she felt uncomfortable at that location because of the drugs and alcohol.”
The Oakland officer said he then went to the warehouse and banged his baton on the door 15 or 20 times before someone finally opened it.
Chavez said he told the people who answered the door that they had to shut down the party and get people to leave because the party was illegal. He said two people, one of whom he identified as Harris, slammed the door on his leg in a confrontational manner.
Video footage of the incident from Chavez’s body camera was shown to jurors and when Harris briefly took the witness stand he said, “That clearly is not me” in the video, as the person Chavez said was Harris had short hair and Harris said he had dreadlocks down to his waist at that time.
Harris said he was in the building at the time of the party but didn’t come to the door.
Asked by prosecutor Casey Bates if up to 125 people attended the party, Harris said he didn’t know the exact number but admitted there were “a fair amount of people.”