Jury Acquits One Ghost Ship Leader, Deadlocks on Other

Almost three years later, no one has been held responsible by the criminal justice system for the 36 deaths.

A jury acquitted one man at the center of the deadly Ghost Ship fire but was undecided on the fate of the other on Thursday, three years after the blaze killed 36 people.

Max Harris, who helped organize events at the Oakland warehouse, was found not guilty of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to the East Bay Times. The jury was deadlocked when it came to master tenant, Derick Almena, who faced the same charges. Both men faced up to 39 years in jail.

A fire broke out in the two-story building filled on Dec. 2, 2016, trapping people inside the artists’ space. Most who died were unable to flee the second floor and some texted loved ones their final goodbyes. 

The city was criticized for not keeping on owner Chor Ng for being out of code while attention was brought to the dangerous conditions low-income artists are left with to remain in the Bay Area. 

Ultimately, charges were brought against Almena and Harris but met a bumpy road. The two initially pled not guilty in 2017, then pleaded no contest to all counts in July 2018. A month later, a judge threw out the plea deal that could have released both men in three years under good behavior. 

The weeks-long trial this year brought with it some surprises. Lawyer Tony Serra — whose high-profile client list has included Huey Newton, Shrimp Boy, and Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, the man acquitted in the death of Kathryn Steinle — represents Almena, and claimed that seven mysterious men intentionally started the blaze, supported by witness Sharon Evans, who claimed she overheard men of Latino descent discussing how happy they were about the fire.

But Alameda County Prosecutor Autrey James argued these claims were unfounded, bringing in Oakland Fire Department investigator Maria Sabatini. Although the cause of the fire still hasn’t been clearly determined, she stated on the stand that there was no evidence of arson.

Plus, deliberations started over after three jurors were dismissed in August.

Three years later, the criminal justice system has yet to tell families of those who died in the fire or survived with trauma who is officially responsible.

Another trial for Almena is scheduled for Oct. 4.

Nuala Sawyer Bishari contributed to this report.

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