2 men charged in fatal Oakland warehouse fire to enter pleas

AP News
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Posted: Jul 07, 2017 12:39 PM
2 men charged in fatal Oakland warehouse fire to enter pleas

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Two men charged with involuntary manslaughter after a fire at an Oakland warehouse killed 36 people attending a dance party were expected to enter pleas Friday.

Derick Ion Almena and Max Harris are accused of illegally converting the warehouse to a residence and entertainment venue and then creating a fire hazard through unpermitted modifications and clutter.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said Almena and Harris turned the warehouse into a "deathtrap."

Visitors and tenants alike described the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse as a warren of scrap wood, sofas, old pianos and snaking electrical cables. Several said Almena, who rented the building, brushed them off when they voiced concerns.

Oakland firefighters say they may never determine the cause of the Dec. 2 fire because the damage to the building was so extensive. Investigators looked into an electrical cause.

Almena, 47, rented the warehouse and lived there with his family. Harris, 27, also lived in the building and helped Almena book musical acts and sublet the space to artists looking for affordable housing.

Both men were arrested last month and remain in jail on bail of a little more than $1 million each.

Tony Serra and Curtis Briggs, who represent Almena and Harris, respectively, say their clients are being scapegoated for the region's housing crisis. The lawyers said the Pacific Gas & Electric utility and firefighters are also responsible for the fire.

In particular, the attorneys said an electrical line was too small to supply the warehouse and that firefighters erred by punching a hole in the roof of the structure shortly after arriving that drew air into the building and fanned the flames. They say firefighters should have instead cut a hole into a wall.

PG&E spokeswoman Tamar Sarkissian said the utility found no evidence its equipment contributed to the fire and that it received no reports of electrical trouble at the warehouse.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf defended the firefighters' response and said the defense attorneys are seeking to shift blame from their clients.