The first day of testimony Monday in the Ghost Ship jury trial of Derick Almena and Max Harris for 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter began with drama from counsel, included an emotional description of the deadly fire, and ended with the announcement of the sudden death of a key witness over the weekend.
Before the jury was seated for the third day, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson addressed defense objections to the first witness called for prosecution, and to four witnesses being present in the courtroom prior to giving testimony. A third defense motion alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
The Max Harris defense team of Curtis Briggs and Tyler Smith took issue with the prosecution’s calling of Carol Cidlik as the first witness. They argued the strategy was purposefully inflammatory and the testimony was appropriate for the victim impact stage but irrelevant to the case as evidence. With limitations, Thompson permitted the witness.
Tony Serra, Derick Almena’s defense attorney, objected to four of the prosecution’s witnesses being seated in the courtroom before their scheduled day to testify. Three of the four were called to stand, told when they were ordered to return and asked to leave – the fourth was issued a $50,000 arrest warrant for failure to appear.
The third motion carried consequences Thompson would later emphasize. Briggs said Assistant District Attorney Casey Bates acted in an inappropriate and basically hostile fashion when Briggs claims he heard Bates say, “This is the kind of bullshit they’re going to pull when we provide a witness list,” seemingly in reference to the witness objection.
Briggs requested the motion be on record and the complaint be reported. Thompson shut things down temporarily by explaining that she is not responsible for the relationship between counsels.
“I don’t expect to have to manage this again.”
Only then did the jury enter the room, passing by the defense table with several attorneys and both defendants dressed in coats with hair pulled back; a packed standing gallery comprised of family, friends and press; the prosecution team, the judge and a handful of curious onlookers. After the 12 sworn jurors were seated, Cidlik was called to the stand.
Cidlik’s daughter was Nicole Renee Siegrist, one of 36 victims who attended a First Friday after-party concert at the Ghost Ship. Cidlik began to cry when Deputy District Attorney Autrey James brought up a picture and asked her to confirm if it was her child. She continued to testify, with the aid a projected screenshot, about a final text message she received from Siegrist somewhere around 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 2, 2016. The message read:
“I’m going to die now.”
The second witness called to testify was Nicholas “Nico” Brouchard. Brouchard, who just moved to the Netherlands five days before taking the stand, was called in to provide his account as the person who signed the lease with Derick Almena for the warehouse located at 1305 31st Avenue in Oakland. Brouchard lived with Almena in the Oakland hills and at a marijuana grow property in Santa Cruz prior to their Ghost Ship venture, which, according to Brouchard, was initially conceived as a space for the Satya Yuga art collective to build theatrical sets, like those made for Burning Man, and a community center for outreach and workshops.
Within a few weeks, Brouchard moved out and wrote to the property owners, a family estate managed by daughter Eva Ng, via email and asked to be removed from the lease due to concerns about compliance and safety. Brouchard was still named on the lease at the time of the fire.
Brouchard testified he became nervous about his responsibility for the lease when Almena began making unpermitted alterations to the building, citing a 20-by-20-foot hole cut in the second-story floor and removal of the building’s conveyor belt system.
Brouchard testified that a portion of money used to acquire the Ghost Ship was his personally and another portion was contributed by Almena, pulling from earnings due to employees at the grow operation in Santa Cruz. He remembers signing the lease with Almena, Micah Allison, Michael Brady and Eva Ng present, and it being a good experience.
Within a few days, they were moving trailers and RVs, some with motors and some without, from Santa Cruz to inside what would later be coined the Ghost Ship warehouse.
Brouchard described the place as a “labyrinth” with tunnels and alcoves. He said:
“Unless you had knowledge of the layout, you’d have a hard time…”
The third witness was Elizabeth Mazzola, a woman who sublet a unit from a friend at the Ghost Ship – it was a trailer spot on the first floor that opened to a common area. In contrast to Brouchard, she described the space as more “straight forward” with delineated hallways of wood, metal and fabric lining a path to the front door. Mazzola lived there for about one month when the fire happened, a day she was sick in her trailer all day, according to her account.
Mazzola testified she heard someone call for help:
“The ‘help’ was very faint. It was hard to make sense of – it was kind of ambiguous and quiet, kind of meek. I was confused.”
According to her testimony, Mazzola then opened her door and saw a “huge wall of fire” in the residents’ common area, yelled “Fire” and ran out after grabbing her phone and a few items from her room.
She was questioned from all sides about what and who she saw, what she heard and if the power was on or off when she fled. Mazzola testified she never looked back to the staircase as she ran to the front door, that she didn’t notice anyone out of place and that she couldn’t really remember if it was dark or not when she exited the building. She called that period “fuzzy” because she was frightened.
Mazzola said she paid Harris for the month of rent because it was her perception that he was a “go-between person,” who she and others trusted.
“He was very responsible and kind … he’s not a suspicious person. He’s a very decent man.”
During cross examination, Serra asked Mazzola about her familiarity with Almena, his wife Allison and their children. She testified the two kids were clean, healthy and happy, and that she loved them. In all of her testimony, that was the point where she choked up.
The witness portion of the day ended with Mazzola’s excusal; however, more would come.
As the jury was released, Thompson took time to relay concern for obvious tension between at least “two parties” of counsel, referring to “glares” and “eye rolls” she herself witnessed, calling on some of the most “elite” attorneys to reflect on their “civility and professionalism” as the trial moves forward.
In a moment of closing business for the day, James reported issues with upcoming witnesses, including the very recent death of witness Robert “Jake” Jacobitz, who was scheduled to testify this week as a one-time electrician and part-time resident at the Ghost Ship. Jacobitz’s sudden and accidental death presents a challenge to the prosecution hoping to paint work at the warehouse as unsafe and criminally negligent.
The trial resumes Tuesday.