Ghost Ship Trial: Main defendant becomes emotional as testimony begins

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- It's the moment Derick Almena's defense teams says he's been waiting for-- for two and a half years. The chance for the founder of the Ghost Ship to tell his side of the story.

"When you put a client on, it's kind of like having a baby. You don't know what's going to happen," said longtime defense attorney Tony Serra of his client Derick Almena.



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Almena finally had his day in court, as the final witness for his own defense in a criminal trial that could send him and co-defendant Max Harris to prison for decades.

Almena's co-defendant Max Harris already testified in the trial. Prosecutors claim Alemna and Harris allowed the warehouse to become a death trap before the December 2016 fire.

Almena sat in the witness chair with his long hair pulled back, wearing a pale yellow shirt and dark sport coat. He became emotional almost immediately, saying he was "tired" and "heartbroken."



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Asked by Serra if he felt responsible for those who died in the Ghost Ship, Almena said, "I instituted something. I built something I dreamed something. I attracted beautiful people to my space. I'm spiritually and morally responsible for it."



Almena told the jury about his background, his family and his vision to create an artist's collective in an old Oakland warehouse that came to be known as the Ghost Ship.

"He's participated fully in his defense. He knows everything. He sits in his cell," said Serra. "Do you know what he's going to testify? That law enforcement was there 41 times, 30 times going into the building. I'm talking law enforcement, fire, child protective service."

When asked if he thought the warehouse was safe, Almena told the jury, "I was given permission to raise my children there. I believed it was safe. I was told it was safe. I wouldn't expose anyone to danger."

Before Almena, a former Ghost Ship resident Darold Leite described what he heard in the moments before the fire that killed 36 people in December 2016.



"I heard bottles breaking and pop, pop, pop and I heard what sounded like an argument," said Leite.

The defense claims that the fatal fire was intentionally set with Molotov Cocktails by several men in dark clothing.

Fire investigators never officially determined a cause.

Two Oakland police officers also testified-- both had been inside the warehouse in the months and years before the fire. Officer Jonathon Low admitted he knew people lived there, but said Almena denied it during their multiple encounters in 2015 and 2016.



Officer Bryant Ocampo described driving Almena and his wife back to their home in July 2014, the night the couple drove a gunshot victim to Highland Hospital. The woman, who was shot in the parking lot of a business near the Ghost Ship, died later night.

Ocampo testified that he likely thanked Almena for trying to save her life.

Almena is expected to be on the stand for the remainder of the week and then both sides will deliver their closing arguments to the jury.

Take a look at the latest stories and videos about the Ghost Ship Fire trial.
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