Jury hung in case of master tenant as his alleged right-hand man acquitted
Almost three years after a fire tore through an Oakland warehouse, killing 36 people, the months-long involuntary manslaughter proceedings of the spaces master tenant ended in a mistrial.
Derick Almena, 49, who illegally rented out the space as an artist commune known as the Ghost Ship, had faced up to 39 years in prison for the 2 December 2016 fire, but the jury could not reach a verdict.
Max Harris, 29, Almenas purported right-hand man, was found not guilty on all charges.
Thursdays announcement came after a judge replaced three of the jurors with alternates and ordered deliberations begin anew for an unknown reason.
Almena ignored fire codes and warnings that the space was hazardous when he illegally converted it to living quarters, authorities said. He filled the building with Balinese statues, antiques, discarded material and wooden pallets, racking up a history of violations and complaints.
Prosecutors alleged the two men knowingly packed dozens of people into a fire trap the night of the blaze. That night, the warehouse was the location of an electronic music party that Harris had helped plan Almena often hosted for-profit concerts at the commune, even though it was not licensed for entertainment.
Attorneys for Harris and Almena attempted to turn the blame on the city of Oakland, arguing that city officials responding to complaints could better spot potential fire hazards than a warehouse of artists.
At one point, the defense suggested that the blaze had been started by arsonists.
Almena who lived in the warehouse with his family became the object of ire after he posted on Facebook, just hours after the flames broke out: Everything I worked so hard for is gone.
Almenas wife and children were staying in a hotel on the night of the fire.
Its as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope to be standing now in poverty of self worth, he wrote. The post was later deleted. Past residents and artists later came forward to describe not only dangerous living conditions at the warehouse, but also Almenas oftentimes erratic, manipulative behavior.
Almena and Harris had both pleaded no contest to the charges as part of a plea deal, but a judge rejected the deal after he ruled that Almena hadnt shown sufficient remorse during the sentencing hearing.
The fire was a devastating blow to the Bay Areas underground arts and music scene, with many of the victims coming from within that community. Musicians, artists, students, creatives, teachers and photographers were among those killed that night.
The tragedy brought into focus the harsh reality of the housing crisis, and the hazardous conditions it was forcing local artists to accept in order to continue living and working in the Bay Area. Following the fire, some were evicted from similar spaces.
More details soon .