Prosecutor: Defendants in deadly fire 'criminally negligent'

July 29, 2019 - 8:47 pm

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Two men charged with involuntary manslaughter after a fire broke out at a California warehouse, killing 36 people, disregarded human life when they illegally converted the building into a residence for artists and threw unpermitted parties there, prosecutors said Monday.

At closing arguments in the trial against Derick Almena and Max Harris on Monday, an Alameda County prosecutor said three dozen people received no warnings and had no chance to escape the fast-moving fire in December 2016 because the warehouse was not properly equipped with smoke alarms or sprinklers.

Deputy District Attorney Autrey James said the men didn't obtain permits because they wanted to avoid inspections, illegally moved people into the warehouse and held parties there, and violated the fire code by refusing to install safety devices. Instead, James said, they filled the huge warehouse with RVs, pianos, tapestries, wooden partitions and other highly combustible materials.

James said Almena repeatedly ignored requests from the landlord and contractors to obtain permits, even as he "made his living off people coming into the building." The prosecutor said Harris acted like a manager by collecting rent, settling disputes between tenants and coordinating events at the warehouse.

James told jurors that to find the men guilty of involuntary manslaughter, they must agree that their actions were criminally negligent. "Is failure to get a permit criminally negligent? Absolutely," he said.

Federal fire investigators traced the origin of the fire to a back corner of the ground floor of the warehouse. They did not determine a cause, however.

James elicited tears in the courtroom when he read the names of the victims and said 35 of them died in the upper level of the warehouse, where they were "suspended in smoke" with little chance of escaping down a narrow staircase.

Referring to the defendants, he said "these individuals did nothing to ensure the safety of people who came into the building."

During trial, the men's attorneys raised the possibility the fire was caused by arsonists and argued that others shared the blame for the fire, including the city of Oakland, its fire department and the warehouse's landlord.

The men testified that officials with the police and fire departments, as well as child welfare officials, had entered the warehouse on various occasions and did not raise concerns about the fire hazards.

Almena and Harris have also been named in lawsuits from victims' families saying that Oakland's fire and building departments failed to inspect the warehouse annually as required. The lawsuits say inspectors would have discovered the illegal conversions.

The owners of the building were also named in the lawsuit and have not spoken about the fire.

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

Outside court, Chris Allen, who lost his sister in the fire, told reporters he agreed more people are responsible for what led to the fire.

"But that's not who's on trial here," Allen said. "For us, this trial is part of the accountability that needs to take place."

Attorneys for Harris and Almena were scheduled to begin their closing arguments Tuesday. The case could be in the hands of a jury by early August.

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