By Vivian Ho and Mario Koran, The Guardian | Almost three years after a fire tore through Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse, killing 36 people, a jury has acquitted one man of involuntary manslaughter but was unable to reach a verdict on the master tenant.
Jurors were “hopelessly deadlocked” in the case against Derick Almena, 49, who illegally rented out the space and developed it as an artists’ commune, said the superior court judge Trina Thompson on Thursday. “I must declare a mistrial.”
Almena had faced up to 39 years in prison over the 2 December 2016 fire.
Max Harris, 29, Almena’s purported right-hand man, was found not guilty on all charges.
Authorities said that Almena ignored fire codes and warnings that the space was hazardous when he illegally converted it to living quarters. 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 to plan. Almena often hosted for-profit concerts at the commune, even though it was not licensed for entertainment.
Almena – who lived in the warehouse with his family – became the object of ire in the wake of the fire after after he posted on Facebook, just hours after the flames broke out: “Everything I worked so hard for is gone. It’s as if I have awoken from a dream filled with opulence and hope … to be standing now in poverty of self worth.”
The post was later deleted. Past residents and artists later came forward to describe not only dangerous living conditions at the warehouse, but what they called Almena’s erratic, manipulative behavior.
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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.
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Oakland needed to use this opportunity to “clean house”, said Briggs, who added that no officials took responsibility for the lack of oversight when it came to building inspections and violations.
“None of this ever would have happened in the first place if the income inequality … and the housing crisis weren’t as bad and wasn’t permitted to get as bad in the Bay Area and in Oakland,” said Taylor Smith, another attorney for Harris. “These artists were living in this warehouse because they didn’t have too many other options. They were going to be on the street otherwise. They were living there out of necessity and there are many other warehouses in Oakland like the Ghost Ship.”http://www.femmusic.com, for contributing this article.]
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