‘No justice’ in San Fran when two charged for warehouse fire that killed 36 let off the hook

(FILE PHOTO by Alameda County Sheriff’s Office/Getty)

Two men who were charged for a fire that broke out in a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse and killed 36 people three years ago have effectively been let off the hook.

In a stunning ruling Thursday, a jury declared a hung trial for Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena, 49, and outright acquitted his assistant, creative director Max Harris, 29, though Harris had reportedly already spent two years behind bars awaiting trial.

Family members of the 36 men and women who died when a deadly fire swept through the warehouse on Dec. 2, 2016, were floored, according to the Associated Press, though their anger seemed to be aimed more-so at Almena’s hung trial versus Harris’s acquittal.

“As the judge declared a mistrial, sobs and gasps erupted from family and friends of the victims who have packed the courtroom for the emotional three-month trial,” the outlet reported.

“I’m in shock,” David Gregory, the father of 20-year-old victim Michela, reportedly said. “We were hoping for justice, but we didn’t get justice today.”

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Almena and Harris were initially offered a plea deal that would have placed them behind bars for six to nine years, but the deal was rejected by the judge on behalf of the victims’ families, who’d complained that the sentence would have been too lenient.

The anger and exasperation Thursday stemmed in large part to the shared belief among the victims’ family members that Almena and Harris’s incompetence directly led to the fire that killed their loved ones.

“At trial, prosecutors argued the men did nothing to ensure the safety of warehouse residents or visitors. They stuffed the building with highly combustible materials, failed to get permits, and didn’t put up smoke detectors, prosecutors said,” BuzzFeed News notes.

Almena even once admitted to having created dangerous conditions at the warehouse

In an interview two years ago, he told a local media station that “after he moved into the warehouse in November 2013, its electrical transformer blew and he jury-rigged electrical wiring from the building next door to power the Ghost Ship,” according to Oakland’s East Bay Express.

“He then proceeded to fill the warehouse with elaborate — and highly flammable — wooden sculptures and other wooden pieces. According to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, he also collected ‘recycled dry wood, such as fence boards, shingles, frames, [and] wooden sculptures’ for his tenants to use for their living spaces in the warehouse. Plus, he built a narrow, ramshackle wooden staircase to the second floor. It was a disaster waiting to happen.”

The following tour of the warehouse was reportedly recorded sometime before the 2016 fire:

Harris meanwhile reportedly followed Almena’s lead like a lost child. In a profile of him published last year, The New York Times portrayed the 29-year-old as “a gentle artist who was manipulated by Almena,” as noted by BuzzFeed.

This may explain why he was acquitted. As for Harris, the story is more complex because, ultimately, he wasn’t the only party responsible for the dangerous conditions at the warehouse.

“There’s also strong evidence that the building’s owners, the Ng family, were aware of the dangerous conditions inside,” the East Bay Express has confirmed. “The city’s police, fire, and building inspection departments also knew about the warehouse’s hazards. And PG&E probably should’ve known that Almena had jury-rigged the Ghost Ship’s electrical system by connecting it to a next-door building.”

In their defense, Almena’s attorneys reportedly cited local inspectors’ refusal to take action and also the fact that inspectors still haven’t determined what exactly caused the fire.

“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 its cause, meaning arson cannot be ruled out,” the AP reported.

“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.”

In an interview two years ago, Almena claimed, quote, “They didn’t shut us down because they thought we were awesome.”

Both Thursday’s verdicts and the city’s lax enforcement of consequential regulations and codes does seem to speak to San Francisco’s general sense of lawlessness.

Just last month, a homeless man who’d been caught on video camera assaulting a local woman was released from incarceration only hours after his arrest on the basis that “he was on drugs and couldn’t think clearly” and was thus allegedly no threat to anybody.

The victim of the assault, Paneez Kosarian, responded by begging Gov. Gavin Newsom to intervene on her behalf and demanding the judge be removed from office:

In a statement to a local reporter, she also vowed to move out of the city:

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Vivek Saxena

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