The two organisers of the Ghost Ship arts space in Oakland, California—an illegally converted warehouse where 36 people died last December after the building caught fire—have been arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter. Following a six month-long investigation, prosecutors found that Derick Almena, the primary leaseholder, and Max Harris, a tenant of the warehouse, “knowingly created a fire trap, with inadequate means of escape… They then filled that area with human beings,” district attorney Nancy O’Malley told the Los Angeles Times. If convicted of the felony charges, the men face up to 39 years in prison.
Although fire investigators have been unable to trace the cause of the fire, prosecutors say that Almena stored “enormous amounts of flammable material” in the building, and “encouraged tenants to use non-conventional building materials that he collected to create their living spaces.” On the night of the fire, Harris, who had rented a second floor space to host an electronic dance party, blocked off a second exit “which effectively reduced the upstairs guests to a single point of escape”. Prosecutors say “their actions amounted to a disregard for human life.”
Almena’s attorneys, who have previously said they believe the fire started in another building and that the agencies investigating the fire have a conflict of interest because they are defendants in a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the victims’ families, said in a statement: “We believe that these charges represent no less than a miscarriage of justice, and we are confident that this attempt to make a scapegoat out of our client will fail.” It is unclear if Harris has legal representation.
The landlord of the warehouse, Chor Ng, has said that she was unaware that there were tenants living in the building and believed that the warehouse was being leased as a studio space for an art collective.