Witness testifies in Ghost Ship Fire trial



By Jeff Shuttleworth, BAY CITY NEWS SERVICE

A two-time felon who is a friend of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena testified on Monday that he heard what sounded like an argument and bottles being broken shortly before a fire at the Oakland building in December 2016 that killed 36 people.
Darold Leite, who lived in a sauna in a lot next to the warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue at the time and previously lived inside the building for two years, said, “It sounded like an argument, like a fight” a few minutes before the fire broke out during a music party there the night of Dec. 2, 2016.
Leite, who has convictions for assault with a firearm and for receiving stolen property, said he told the people who appeared to be arguing to “knock it off or I’d get involved myself.”
Leite, who did electrical work and other types of work for Almena at the warehouse, said he saw seven or eight people in dark clothes rush out a side door after the apparent argument.
However, Leite said he couldn’t see their faces or tell what their ethnic background was.
Leite, 49, is testifying in the trial of Almena, and Ghost Ship creative director Max Harris, 29, on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, one for each of the victims in the fire at the warehouse, which served as an artists’ collective.
Alameda County prosecutors allege that Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the blaze because the partygoers didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.
Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease, which only called for it to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective, by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.
But defense lawyers allege that the fire was an act or arson that the two men couldn’t have prevented.
Previous defense witness Sharon Evans testified last month that when she was at a nearby taco stand shortly after the blaze started she overheard a group of 14 to 19 men who appeared to be of Hispanic background congratulate themselves on setting the fire.
Evans said the men wore dark clothes and had hoodies over their faces.
Almena is expected to begin testifying later Monday.