Ghost Ship Trial: Witness Dies Before Testifying

Key witness for the prosecution, an electrician who called the warehouse a 'death trap,' dies in a vehicle crash Sunday

Monday marked the first day of testimony in the trial of two men accused in the Oakland warehouse fire that left 36 people dead more than two years ago.

Derick Almena, 49, and Max Harris, 29, have been jailed since their arrest in June 2017. Prosecutors say Almena rented the warehouse and Harris acted as "creative director," helping book concerts and collect rent.

The two defendants are accused of failing to provide adequate safety equipment, exits and signage.

Before testimony began Monday, a stunning twist was announced: a key witness who once called the Ghost Ship a "death trap" died Sunday in a vehicle crash in San Pablo, according to the prosecution. 

Robert Jacobitz was an electrician who worked for Almena, and the prosecution was likely planning to grill Jacobitz about the warehouse’s electrical system and whether or not Almena made any improvements or repairs to make the warehouse safer.

Alameda County deputy district attorney Casey Bates told jurors last week that Jacobitz was an unlicensed contractor who performed inexpensive work at the warehouse soon after Almena rented it in November 2013.

Prosecutors allege that Almena, 49, stuffed it full of highly flammable furniture, pianos and other material and failed to provide smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers and other required safety equipment. Prosecutors say Harris, 29, helped Almena convert the warehouse, collect rent and schedule concerts.

Almena and Harris are each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The men could face up to 36 years each if convicted on all counts.

The first witness to take the stand Monday was Carol Cidlik. Her 29-year-old daughter Nicole Siegrist was one of 36 people who did not escape the fire. In her final moments, Nicole sent out a text to her mother saying, "I am going to die now."

The second witness was Nicholas "Nico" Bouchard, who initially was friends with Almena and co-signed the lease to the Ghost Ship warehouse. Bouchard said after 2 to 3 weeks of living in the warehouse, he wanted out.

Bouchard accused Almena of violating the terms of the lease and was concerned that the building was not safe. He also went on to accuse Almena of using meth and described him as aggressive.

Almena’s attorney said Bouchard had a terrible falling out with Almena and is therefore exaggerating.

"This week is gonna be a hard week for Mr. Almena because he’s putting on all the witnesses who are hostile to him, and most of their hostility is subjective," defense attorney Tony Serra said.

Federal fire officials could not determine what caused the Dec. 2, 2016, blaze.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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