After a six-month investigation following the deadly Ghost Ship fire that killed 36 people during a music event at a warehouse in Oakland last December, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley announced today that criminal charges have been filed.
36 counts of involuntary manslaughter—"exposure to which," O'Malley said, "equals 39 years"—were filed against lease-holder Derick Almena and Max Harris, who lived at the warehouse and helped organize the show. The two were arrested without incident earlier in the day—Almena in Lake County, California and Harris in Los Angeles. The FBI assisted in making the arrests.
"Defendants Almena and Harris knowingly created a firetrap with inadequate means of escape," O'Malley said today a press conference. "They then filled that area with human beings and are now facing the consequences of their actions."
O'Malley said that though most of the physical evidence was destroyed in the flames, and investigators were unable to identify the electrical cause of the fire, the DA's office is building its case on reports on the conditions of the warehouse prior to the fire and are alleging that Almena and Harris were aware of the dangers when they allowed people to both reside and attend events there, stating that their actions amounted "to a disregard for human life" and were "the proximate cause of the death of thirty-six individuals trapped inside the warehouse when the fire started."
Almena, who was not at the warehouse at the time of the fire, was the leaseholder for the building and founded an art collective called Sata Yuga, housed at the warehouse. According to a probable cause statement released with the charges, he allegedly charged below-market rent—between $300 to $1,400—to more than 25 artists and creatives who occupied artfully built cubbies and trailers, and rented out a space accessible by a narrow set of pallet-built stairs for parties and events.
The interior was filled with instruments and other artifacts that former-residents referred to as a "living art installation." According to the probable cause statement, these objects violated California fire codes and made the space "highly flammable."
Harris, an artist who went by Max Ohr, had lived and worked in the warehouse for more than two years at the time of the fire. The DA alleges that he rented the upstairs space for the event held there on December 2, an electronic music show by Los Angeles-based label 100% Silk.
Speaking to THUMP soon after the fire, Harris said he was one of several residents who attempted to put out the flames when they erupted. As the fire quickly overtook the warehouse, he stood by the door directing people toward the exits and trying to get people out. Most did not make it.
He also said that he and other residents had repeatedly informed the building owner, Chor Ng, of the unsafe conditions to no avail.
"We have been in a miserable lack of communication with the landlord—not for lack of trying," he said in an interview in December. "I have reached out, and tried to address some of the electrical issues with them. Their only response was demanding more money from us. There should have been an electrician there that day."
It's been uncovered in the six months since the fire that the city failed to properly inspect the building and that both firefighters and police officers were aware that there were people living there and events being held there.
The tragedy also prompted push-back from communities around the country, citing rising costs of rent and lack of venues available for non-mainstream music or art scenes as factors driven people toward unsafe spaces like the Ghost Ship.
For now, O'Malley said, Almena and Harris are the only people facing criminal liability for the fire.
"There has been much discussion in the public forums as well as in the media since the fire happened that talks about the need for space in which artists can live and work in Oakland and the surrounding cities," she said. "I wholeheartedly support our arts community both in my belief that they are a vital and vibrant part of what makes Oakland great. But every single one of those individuals deserves to live or work in a place that is safe."
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf responded in favor of the District Attorney's charges. "I applaud the charges filed today by District Attorney Nancy O'Malley because they send a clear message: you won't get away with making a profit by cramming people into dangerous spaces or failing to maintain safe living conditions," she wrote in a statement.
Almena's attorneys—Jeffrey Krasnoff, Kyndra Miller and J. Tony Serra—responded to the charges with a joint statement of their own: "We intend to vigorously defend him in the court of law. We believe that these charges represent no less than a miscarriage of justice, and we are confident that this attempt to make a scapegoat out of our client will fail."
UPDATE [10:33]: This article has been updated with a statement from Mayor Libby Schaaf, a statement from Alameda's attorneys, and quotes from an interview THUMP conducted with Max Harris in December 2016.