The former assistant fire marshal for the city of Oakland offered expert testimony in the Ghost Ship warehouse trial.
The Ghost Ship Warehouse Fire
The Ghost Ship warehouse fire occurred at 1309 31st Avenue in Oakland’s Fruitvale district late on the night of December 2, 2016. The building was a former warehouse that had been turned into an artist collective that was known as the Ghost Ship.
At the time of the fire, the collective was hosting a music concert at the warehouse featuring artists from the house music record label 100% Silk. During the party, a fire occurred and 36 people were killed.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s office investigated the cause of the fire. The investigation revealed emails from 2014 that allegedly described serious electrical problems in the building. On June 5, 2017, the master tenant Derick Almena and his assistant and creative director Max Harris were charged with 36 counts of felony involuntary manslaughter in connection with the deaths. Both pleaded no contest; however, the judge overseeing the case discarded the plea deal and the case continued to trial.
At trial, Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates alleged that the two are criminally liable for the fire because there was no time and no way for the people to escape the party, as the warehouse lacked important safety features such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms, and exit signs. Bates also claims that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse lease by turning it into a living space and throwing underground parties there.
To defend Harris and Almena, their attorneys, Curtis Briggs and Tony Serra, claim that the fire was an act of arson that could not have been prevented.
Expert Witness Testimony
Alameda County prosecutor Bates proposed Cesar Avila to testify as an expert at trial. Avila was formerly the assistant fire marshal for Oakland and is currently an Alameda County Deputy Fire Marshal serving the city of Emeryville. Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra objected to qualifying Avila as an expert because he had never previously testified as an expert.
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson certified Cesar Avila to testify as an expert witness at trial on the topics of the implementation of fire and building codes for the purpose of conducting experiments.
Alameda County prosecutor Bates questioned Avila as to whether it was permissible for the warehouse at 1309 31st Avenue to have RVs and trailers that were used as living spaces. Avila answered, “Absolutely not.”
Avila explained that the governing building code does not allow RVs in warehouses because they are a potential fire hazard. He told the court that the fuel and propane tanks in RVs can cause fires to burn more intensely. He said, “There are a lot of fluids that could augment a fire.” Additionally, Avila noted that RV batteries “are another potential augmentation” for fires.
The trial of Harris and Almena is expected to last at least several months.