Nearly two years ago, Ghost Ship trial defendant Derick Almena sat for an emotional interview with a local television station, firing back at his critics and professing his innocence in the 2016 Oakland warehouse fire that killed 36 people.
“The whole structure of my defense is, like, pointing and blaming,” he told the reporter.
Those words came back to haunt Almena on Thursday, as prosecutor Autrey James used them to round out two days of blistering cross-examination.
Thursday marked Almena’s fourth day on the witness stand as he fights involuntary manslaughter charges for each of the 36 people who were killed in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland on Dec. 2, 2016. While the 49-year-old artist tearfully accepted responsibility for the tragedy during his direct examination on Monday, Almena has struck a combative tone with the prosecutor since cross-examination began on Wednesday morning.
Throughout his testimony, Almena stressed that his landlords, the Ng family, told him to lie about tenants illegally living in the space, and said police and fire officials visited on multiple occasions but never noted that it was unsafe.
But Almena bristled as James read his KTVU interview back to him, and told the lawyer he was taking the statement out of context.
“I still don’t want to blame anybody,” Almena said, eliciting laughter from victims’ family members in the courtroom gallery.
James capped off his examination by listing, one by one, the individuals Almena sought to blame: the Ngs, fire inspector Maria Sabatini, fire Capt. George Freelen and contractors paid to do work at the warehouse.
“I’m not blaming anyone,” Almena repeated after each name.
Almena was scheduled as the last witness in his defense, following more than two months of testimony in the criminal trial. His co-defendant, 29-year-old Max Harris, testified last month.
Prosecutors in the first several weeks called to the stand firefighters, police officers, fire survivors and victims’ loved ones, arguing that the victims had “no notice, no time and no exits” before they were killed in the flames.
The evening of Dec. 2, 2016, a massive blaze tore through the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, where dozens of people had gathered for an electronic music party. Witnesses in the trial describe the space as both an artists’ utopia and a death trap, crammed with pianos, organs, tapestries, artwork and flammable materials. A makeshift staircase served as the only unblocked passageway to and from the second floor, where the party was being held, and partygoers formed a bottleneck as flames engulfed the building.
Seven victims were later recovered from the second floor, in a section that didn’t collapse or burn but showed extensive smoke damage. The 29 other people were found either in the rubble from a partial collapse of the second floor or on the ground floor. All 36 died of smoke inhalation.
Prosecutors say Almena, the master tenant of the warehouse, allowed dozens of people to illegally live in the unsanctioned artists’ utopia and ignored warnings that the space was a tinderbox. There were no sprinklers, smoke alarms or illuminated exit signs in the public areas.
The prosecution describes Harris as Almena’s second-in-command, though defense attorneys say his leadership role was exaggerated.
Defense attorneys, meanwhile, have sought to shift the blame to the landlords, police and fire officials, who they say should have spotted hazards. They have additionally suggested that the blaze was ignited by arsonists.
Prosecutors may begin calling rebuttal witnesses on Monday, and closing arguments are scheduled to begin July 29.
Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @meganrcassidy
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