Ghost Ship witness has 'snapshot memory' of firefighters ignoring warning signs

Defense attorney, Tony Serra, used his opening witness to suggest that fire officials missed an opportunity to flag hazards at the Fruitvale neighborhood warehouse


Megan Cassidy
San Francisco Chronicle

SAN FRANCISCO — A former Ghost Ship tenant testified Thursday that firefighters entered the Oakland warehouse approximately two years prior to the horrific fire that killed 36 people, contradicting what one firefighter told jurors several weeks ago.

On the first day of testimony in defendant Derick Almena’s case, defense attorney Tony Serra used his opening witness to suggest that fire officials missed an opportunity to flag hazards at the Fruitvale neighborhood warehouse, and to challenge the credibility of one of the prosecutors’ key witnesses.

Olivia Prink said she has a “snapshot memory” of seeing about three firefighters inside the Ghost Ship after firefighters responded to a couch fire outside the warehouse in September 2014. (Photo/ AP)
Olivia Prink said she has a “snapshot memory” of seeing about three firefighters inside the Ghost Ship after firefighters responded to a couch fire outside the warehouse in September 2014. (Photo/ AP)

Olivia Prink said she has a “snapshot memory” of seeing about three firefighters inside the Ghost Ship after firefighters responded to a couch fire outside the warehouse in September 2014.

This recollection is at odds with one of those firefighters, Maria Sabatini, who testified last month that she investigated the couch fire as a potential arson but never went inside the warehouse.

Sabatini, who also investigated the deadly inferno at the Ghost Ship, testified that she found no evidence of arson or Molotov cocktails near the fire’s origin. Her statements — made as a witness for prosecutors — served as a rebuttal to one of the defense’s core theories.

Almena, 49, and co-defendant Max Harris, 29, each face charges of involuntary manslaughter for each person killed in the Dec. 2, 2016, blaze during an electronic music show. Prosecutors have painted Almena as a reckless master tenant of the unsanctioned live-work space, unconcerned with safety measures. Harris, they’ve argued, was a de facto leader who allowed dozens of people to pack into a death trap the night of the fire.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, have attempted to blame government officials. Throughout the trial, they’ve pointed to multiple instances of police, firefighters and child service workers touring the warehouse before the fire but failing to report its dangerous conditions.

Two other defense witnesses largely corroborated Prink’s remarks later in the afternoon. Joe Rodriguez, a friend of Almena since childhood, testified that he was “positive” that at least five or six firefighters came inside about two years ago, and stayed for about 10 to 15 minutes. One was a woman, he said.

Rodriguez added that many of the firefighters came back the following day for a pig roast at the warehouse and that he saw them taking photographs of the artifacts inside.

The defense team has suggested that the blaze was ignited by a group of arsonists lobbing Molotov cocktails in the back of the warehouse.

Harris stepped down from the witness stand Wednesday after three days of testimony. The younger defendant faced an exhaustive cross-examination from prosecutors, who repeatedly forced Harris to acknowledge misrepresentations about his standing in the artists collective.

Attorneys for Harris rested their case Thursday after calling two final witnesses. One, a former Ghost Ship neighbor, testified that she also dealt with the Ng family — the warehouse’s landlords — and they were unconcerned about electrical issues. Another witness, an Oakland firefighter, said he visited the warehouse for a Christmas potluck in December 2015 and did not feel it was unsafe.

Almena is expected to testify on his own behalf.

Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @meganrcassidy

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©2019 the San Francisco Chronicle

 

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