The founder of the Ghost Ship, an Oakland, California, warehouse where a fast-moving blaze killed 36 people in 2016, took the stand on Monday for the first day of his testimony.
Derick Almena, 49, is one of two co-defendants in a criminal trial that began in May. He and Max Harris, 29, both face 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the blaze.
“I instigated something, I drove something... I dreamed something,” Almena said of the artist collective housed in the Ghost Ship warehouse, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I attracted beautiful people to my space.”
Asked by his defense attorney, Tony Serra, how he was doing, Almena said: “I’m tired, brokenhearted. I’ve been in solitary confinement for two years. I’m just so sad.”
Before the fire, the Ghost Ship operated as part unsanctioned live-work space for artists and part event venue. Almena was the master tenant and leased rooms to other artists, while Harris collected rent and did odd jobs around the space.
The blaze broke out during a concert that 80 to 90 people attended, according to Harris’ testimony last month. The fire spread rapidly, trapping many inside and leading to the deaths of 35 concertgoers and one tenant.
Almena and Harris are accused of failing to implement safety measures at the 10,000-square-foot warehouse, including providing adequate emergency equipment and smoke detectors, leaving partygoers with “no notice, no time and no exit,” according to prosecutor Casey Bates. Both defendants have been in jail since their arrests in June 2017.
A judge last year rejected a plea deal package for Almena and Harris, saying Almena hadn’t accepted “full responsibility and remorse” for the deadly fire.
Defense attorneys called three witnesses to the stand on Monday morning before Almena’s testimony. Two were Oakland police officers who interacted with Almena at the warehouse before the blaze. The third was Darold Leite, who lived on the lot next to the warehouse and who said he heard “what sounded like a fight” and glass breaking before the fire erupted.
Leite’s testimony appeared to back up the defense’s argument that the blaze was set by arsonists, though fire investigators previously testified there was no evidence of arson. The cause of the fire remains undetermined, and one investigator said it was likely caused by electrical issues.
The families of the fire victims have also filed negligence lawsuits against warehouse owner Chor Ng, as well as Pacific Gas & Electric.