Witnesses say Almena scoffed at building Ghost Ship to code

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- The testimony on the third day of the Ghost Ship preliminary hearing was a mixture of emotion, some tears, and accusations that the warehouse was a disaster in the making long before the December 2016 fire that killed 36 people.

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Rodney Griffin, a man hired to do some construction work at the Ghost Ship three years before the deadly fire, testified in an Oakland courtroom that he thought it was a "death-trap" with its maze of makeshift studios, cluttered living spaces, dozens of pianos and pieces of artwork.

Ghost Ship survivor and former resident Carmen Brito described what it was like to get out of the warehouse the night of the deadly fire.

She says she awoke to find her first floor studio engulfed in smoke and then, as she ran to the front of the building, how the flames in the back had already reached 8 feet in height. "The lights were still on. The music was still playing and I don't think anyone on the second floor could hear us shouting," Brito testified.

Brito also described the Ghost Ship as "the most beautiful place I've ever lived."

"It was fun. It was vibrant and I felt safe there," she said. "Nobody ever think their home is going to be the one that burns down."

Brito described defendant Max Harris' actions that night as "heroic," saying he ran toward the flames shouting "Fire!" and personally helped at least a dozen people escape out the front door.

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"It's showing exactly what we've been seeing for the past 6 or 7 months we've been doing our investigation, going through discovery," said Harris' attorney Sam Geller. "There's nothing here to indicate the allegations being made against Mr. Harris."

He along with Ghost Ship founder Derick Almena are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.

Earlier Derick Almena's lead attorney Tony Serra wondered why several witnesses, who testified they thought the warehouse was dangerous, never brought those concerns to Oakland officials.

"We're showing at that point there wasn't genuine concern," said Serra, the lead attorney for Almena. "They would've reported it. Isn't it easy? Look, there's a bunch of people in there or who plan to be in there. They don't have any license, they don't have any permits, there's been no inspections, but none of them did that."

Nicholas Bouchard testified he signed the original 2013 lease for the empty warehouse, but almost immediately tried to get his name removed, after it became clear Almena had no intention of getting proper permits or following building codes in creating the live/work space that became the Ghost Ship.

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"If they had such a strong concern then, why didn't they express those concerns then?" asked attorney Geller, who represents Harris. "Why didn't they contact the proper authorities then?"

Bouchard described Almena as a "father figure" who was addicted to speed and "extremely emotionally manipulative."

"I want every aspect of Derick being in my life to be in my rear view mirror," testified Bouchard.

Bouchard's mother Katleen testified about a meeting in November 2013, where she met with Almena and others wanting to turn the warehouse into an artists collective. She described Almena's reaction when she explained how the building could be brought up to Oakland city codes.

"He laughed at me and said that's not how he goes about things. That it was way too conventional. He walked out and left," said Katleen Bouchard.

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