The founder of communal living space in a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse where a fire killed 36 people more than two years ago testified Monday that he couldn't put into words how he feels but he is sad about the deaths.
"I built something. I dreamed something, I invited, I attracted beautiful people into my space, and I'm responsible for having this idea," Derick Almena said at his trial during questioning by defense attorney Tony Serra. The 2016 inferno at the artist live-work space in Oakland occurred during an electronic music concert.
Almena, 49, is accused of illegally converting the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse into the communal living space and faces 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter along with co-defendant Max Harris, 29. Prosecutors allege that Almena stuffed the warehouse full of highly flammable furniture, rugs and other material and failed to provide smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers and other required safety equipment. They say Harris helped Almena convert the warehouse, collect rent and schedule concerts.
Almena testified that he and his wife rented the warehouse to gather things they had collected from their world travels in one place. They lived there with their three children and considered the warehouse to be public space and a way to give back to the artists' community. Almena's wife and three children were staying at a hotel the night of the fire.
"I believed it was safe and I was told it was safe," he testified. He was not asked to explain who told him it was safe. Both defendants pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter last summer. But a judge scuttled the plea deal they had worked out after victims' families objected to their proposed sentences as too lenient and a judge said Almena failed to show remorse.
Almena told the victims' families at the time that he should have died in the fire and that he was "guilty for believing we were safe." Federal fire officials traced the origin of the fire to a back corner of the ground floor of the warehouse but could not determine a cause. The owner of the building has not been charged and has not spoken about the fire. The men could face up to 36 years each if convicted on all counts.
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