Prosecutors Seek to Prove 36 Counts of Manslaughter for Each Ghost Ship Fire Defendant

People who lost loved ones in the Ghost Ship fire on December 2,2016 continue to leave notes for their loves ones at a memorial outside the warehouse.

People who lost loved ones in the Ghost Ship fire on Dec. 2, 2016, continue to leave notes for them at a memorial outside the warehouse in Oakland. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

It’s been just over a year since Mary Vega last saw her son, Alex. Alex Vega, 22, and his girlfriend, Michela Gregory, 20, were among the 36 people who died on Dec. 2, 2016, when fire engulfed the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland.

“It just feels like it happened yesterday,” Mary Vega said Monday outside an Oakland courtroom. “And then at the same time it’s been an eternity.”

Mary Vega speaks to reporters outside a courtroom in Oakland. She says she wants justice for her son Alex, who died a year ago in the Ghost Ship fire.
Mary Vega speaks to reporters outside a courtroom in Oakland. She says she wants justice for her son, Alex, who died a year ago in the Ghost Ship fire. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

This week, Vega is planning to be in court along with other family members of the deceased to hear evidence against two men facing criminal charges for the Ghost Ship fire.

The Alameda County district attorney has charged Derick Almena, the master tenant for the Fruitvale warehouse, and Max Harris, who helped manage the space, with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. A preliminary hearing — where a judge will decide if the evidence merits the case proceeding to trial — is set to begin Wednesday and take approximately five days.

Prosecutors are expected to interview witnesses and present evidence in support of their charge that Almena and Harris acted with gross negligence and disregard for human life. Prosecutors argue that by allowing people to live in the warehouse, holding events there and conducting unpermitted work in the building, the two men created a high risk of death.


Witnesses are expected to include law enforcement, firefighters, former Ghost Ship residents and survivors of the fire.

Tony Serra, the San Francisco attorney who is representing Derick Almena, said he does not plan to call any defense witnesses, which is typical in a preliminary hearing.

“This is an opportunity for us to have what we call ‘discovery’ of their major percipient witnesses,” Serra said, “to explore their weaknesses, to explore their credibility, to explore their consistency to previous statements given.”

Serra said he does plan to lay the groundwork for a defense that seeks to shift blame from Almena and Harris to other responsible parties.

“Countless times, law enforcement, the sheriff, the Oakland Police Department, the Fire Department, Child Protective Services, the inspectors of building — they visited and they OK’d it by implication and by expression,” Serra said. “This was going to be an exception to the rule. So we have to show that in the prelim that there is some responsibility with respect to law enforcement and other agencies.”

Tony Serra outside a courtroom in Oakland. Serra is defending Derick Almena, who is charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
Tony Serra outside a courtroom in Oakland. Serra is defending Derick Almena, who is charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

Serra said he also plans to go after the building owner, Chor Ng. Serra said Ng and her agents had an obligation to keep the building up to code and they should be the ones facing criminal charges.

An investigation completed in June by the Oakland Fire Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and the Alameda County Arson Task Force failed to find the direct cause of the fire that killed 36 people. Curtis Briggs, Max Harris’s attorney, said that’s a weakness in the prosecution’s case.

“It’s almost like trying a murder case without finding the body,” Briggs said.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

Alberto Vega and his aunt Esperanza Vega. Alberto lost his brother Alex in the Ghost Ship fire. He said he wants to make sure the right people are held responsible for his brother's death.
Alberto Vega and his aunt, Esperanza Vega. Alberto lost his brother, Alex, in the Ghost Ship fire. He said he wants to make sure the right people are held responsible for his brother’s death. (Sukey Lewis/KQED )

Mary Vega said she wants justice for her son, but she is not sure yet what that will look like.

“I want somebody to say, ‘I did it. I’m sorry,’ ” she said. “It’s not going to happen, but I just want closure.”

Prosecutors Seek to Prove 36 Counts of Manslaughter for Each Ghost Ship Fire Defendant 5 December,2017Sukey Lewis

Author

Sukey Lewis

Sukey Lewis is a journalist and radio producer with KQED News reporting on criminal justice. In addition to her work at KQED, Sukey has freelanced for Latino U.S.A., Snap Judgment and the Center For Investigative Reporting’s radio show Reveal.

Sukey received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.

You can email Sukey at slewis@kqed.org or find her on Twitter at @SukeyLewis.

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