Managers of an illegal live/work facility in Oakland, Calif. where 36 died last December are expected in court Thursday to answer to dozens of felony manslaughter charges. Derick Almena, 47, and Max Harris, 27, are scheduled to enter pleas in response to charges that they are to blame for the December 2nd fire that killed 36 people attending a musical performance at the so-called Ghost Ship facility.

Almena and Harris were charged with each of the fatalities that occurred after concert-goers were unable to escape when flames broke out at the converted warehouse and were overcome by smoke.

The facility in Oakland's largely commercial Fruitvale district was not zoned for habitation, and had no sprinkler system or lit exit signs, according to published reports.

Court hearing Friday

They are scheduled to enter pleas on Friday at 9 a.m. at Alameda County Superior Court in downtown Oakland. According to court records, Almena is represented by a legal team led by prominent California defense attorney Tony Serra, and Harris is represented by Deputy Public Defender Jody Nuñez. The date of the court hearing had previously been listed as Thursday.

Both Almena and Harris reportedly lived at the facility, which was home to as many as 20 working artists. They were forced to relocate after the fire -- Almena and his family moved north to Lake County and Harris moved to Southern California.

Both men were arrested by FBI agents last week and brought to Alameda County to answer to the charges, which carry sentences of up to 30 years in prison if convicted. They are being held at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin in lieu of $1 million bail each.


Almena was the founder of the Ghost Ship and Harris was his assistant, according to the East Bay Times newspaper of Oakland.

But it was Harris who organized the concert on the night of Dec. 2 and served as the doorman, collecting $10 from each attendee, the newspaper said.

Investigators said Harris blocked off one potential escape route from the warehouse's second floor as part of his preparations for the show. But Serra, who held a press conference last week at his office in San Francisco, blamed the fire on inaction by the Oakland Fire Department and other city agencies that knew of dangerous conditions at the Ghost Ship but failed to take action.

Reports have surfaced of firefighters attending events at the facility and of building inspectors who failed to gain access to the building and failed to follow up. There is an Oakland firehouse just two blocks from the warehouse.

The facility did not appear to have had a working power hookup of its own, drawing electricity from a neighboring building on 31st Avenue using an extension cable. Both floors of the Ghost Ship were cluttered by makeshift living spaces, wooden furniture, and artwork that made quick escape nearly impossible, particularly after the lights went out.

The tragedy has prompted calls for increased building inspection and stricter permit enforcement in Oakland, a city of more than 300,000 on the east shore of San Francisco Bay.

Some observers say there could be dozens of similar live/work warehouses operating without permits in the heavily populated, high-cost region.

Relatives of many of the victims have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Almena, Oakland property owner Chor Ng, and Pacific Gas & Electric Co., the local power company, however, that case is just beginning and could take years to resolve.