1 acquitted in deadly California warehouse fire; jury deadlocks on 2nd

OAKLAND, Calif. — A jury on Thursday acquitted one man of involuntary manslaughter but could not reach a verdict for the leader of an artists’ commune accused of turning a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse into a cluttered maze that trapped 36 partygoers during a fast-moving fire.

Sobs and gasps erupted from family and friends of the victims who have packed the courtroom for the emotional three-month trial. Relatives had objected to a plea agreement last year that would have put both men in prison for several years, saying the sentences were too lenient.

Jurors found Max Harris, 29, not guilty but said they could not unanimously agree on whether to convict or acquit Derick Almena, 49, of involuntary manslaughter after deliberating since Aug. 26.

“Jurors are hopelessly deadlocked. I must declare a mistrial,” Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson said.

The family of victim Alex Vega said they were stunned and frustrated.

“I’m kind of just in shock right now. I don’t feel good about it. There should be a retrial,” brother Alberto Vega said.

Mother Mary Vega was angry but glad that Harris served more than two years behind bars awaiting trial.

“It’s something. Doesn’t matter, it’s not going to bring my son back,” she said.

The December 2016 fire broke out during an electronic music party at an Oakland warehouse called the Ghost Ship, which had been illegally converted into an artist live-work space.

The building was packed with furniture, extension cords and other flammable material, but had only two exits and no smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinklers, prosecutors say.

The blaze killed 36, many of them young people trapped on the illegally constructed second floor. Prosecutors said the victims received no warning and had little chance to escape down a narrow, ramshackle staircase.

Prosecutors acknowledged the trial’s emotional toll on the families and said they would adjust their approach as they pursue the case against Almena.

One of his attorneys, Brian Getz, broke down in tears, while another, Tony Serra, said he was pained and anguished but vowed to win the case.

“In the next trial, we’ll do better. It may be hung again, or he may be acquitted, but we’re not going to lose,” Serra said.

Harris, who could have faced 39 years in prison, hugged his attorney after the first not-guilty verdict was read.

Almena and Harris were set to be sentenced last year to nine and six years in prison, respectively, after pleading no contest to manslaughter. But a judge threw out their pleas after many of the victims’ families objected.

Almena, 49, was the master tenant of the warehouse and Harris, 29, acted like a manager by collecting rent and settling household disputes, the prosecutor said.

In closing arguments, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James said the men didn’t obtain permits because they didn’t want inspections and they violated the fire code by refusing to install safety devices.

The defendants argued that city workers were to blame for not raising concerns about fire hazards and said the fire was arson. Investigators have never found what caused the fire, meaning arson cannot be ruled out.

Serra, Almena’s attorney, repeatedly brought up instances in which fire, police and other officials toured the two-story building and never said anything about it posing a danger.

Almena cried on his first day on the witness stand, saying that he felt remorse and sorrow for having fostered a space for artists. He said he would never have let his wife and three children live somewhere considered unsafe.

“I built something. I dreamed something, I invited, I attracted beautiful people into my space, and I’m responsible for having this idea,” Almena said.

Harris’ attorney, Curtis Briggs, argued that his client had no leadership role at the warehouse and that he had not even been there when Almena signed the lease in 2013.

Harris testified that he performed menial tasks such as cleaning the communal space and pooling the monthly rent to reduce his rent. He described a free-floating space where every tenant built on or furnished the building as they saw fit and rejected prosecutors’ characterization that the warehouse was a “death trap.”

“I would have made sure my friends were not buried there,” Harris said.

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