Defense upholds Oakland warehouse operator as family man

A defense attorney told jurors Wednesday that the man who was in charge of an Oakland, California, warehouse where three dozen people died in a fire is a family man and artist who is wrongly charged.

"My client is not some despot, cult leader, manipulator of the truth," defense lawyer Tony Serra said of Derick Almena, who is charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with a Dec. 2, 2016, fire in a warehouse that occurred during an unpermitted concert.

Serra blamed Oakland building department officials for failing to inspect the structure annually as required by city law. He noted that Oakland police officers, health department inspectors and Alameda County social welfare workers visited the warehouse in the months before the fire, and none of them raised concerns about the building being a fire hazard.

Serra also said arson is to blame for the fire, saying witnesses will testify to seeing strangers with Molotov cocktails lurking near the warehouse at the time of the fire. U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators could not determine a cause for the fire.

"Arson was not foreseeable," Serra said. "My client did everything possible to make the premises safe."

Almena, 49, rented the warehouse, and prosecutors say he illegally converted it to a residence and entertainment venue. Max Harris, 29, is also charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Prosecutors say he helped Almena collect rent and schedule concerts.

The trial comes after a long wait for family members.

"We have been living on rumors, and we just want the truth," Colleen Dolan, the mother of victim Chelsea Dolan, said Tuesday, as opening statements began.

David Gregory, the father of victim Michela Gregory, said Tuesday that "we just hope the jurors see what we see. ... I just hope they listen to the facts."

Gregory was one of the victims' relatives who complained last year that a proposed plea deal the defendants agreed that called for Almena to serve nine years in prison and Harris to serve six was too lenient. A judge, after listening to Gregory and several other grieving family members of relatives, scuttled the deal and ordered a trial.

"I hope we can get to a conclusion that is going to be something we can all live with and accept," Gregory said.

Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates on Tuesday painted an emotional and dramatic picture of three dozen partygoers who died in a fast-moving fire at the unpermitted concert, recounting a survivor's harrowing tale of mass panic and chaos as choking smoke, zero visibility and fire engulfed the warehouse.

Bates said he will call a survivor of the blaze to testify that he lived by jumping through a second-story window while the majority of attendees couldn't find exits in time.

A fire alarm went off that night, but no one heard it, Bates said. The warehouse lacked sprinklers to slow the blaze that would have given people had time to escape, he said. The two defendants are also accused of failing to provide adequate safety equipment, exits and signage.

"They died because they had no notice, no time and no exits," Bates said.

Family members wept and clutched each other as Bates read the name and showed a photo of each victim.

In his opening statement, Harris' attorney, Curtis Briggs, sought to distance his client from Almena and raised the possibility of arson as he tried to shift blame to others.

Briggs said he will call three witnesses who will testify about seeing strangers near the spot where the fire started in the rear of the warehouse. He also downplayed Harris' title of "creative director," telling the jury his client was a hired hand with the responsibilities of a janitor.

Prosecutors say the defendants filled the warehouse with highly flammable furniture, art pieces and other knickknacks that made it difficult for visitors to quickly find exits.

They both pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter last summer. The men could face up to 36 years each if convicted on all counts.