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Ghost Ship defendant takes stand: 'I was almost awestruck' by warehouse

Angela Ruggiero, East Bay Times on

Published in News & Features

OAKLAND, Calif. -- With his long hair pulled back, wearing an orange shirt and checkered pocket square, a polite smile usually on his face, defendant Max Harris took the stand in his own defense Monday.

As his defense attorney Tyler Smith began questioning him, Smith said, "We finally get to hear from you."

Harris, 29, is accused of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter along with co-defendant Derick Almena, for 36 people who perished in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire Dec. 2, 2016.

Harris answered questions with Smith in an almost conversational tone, nodding in agreement at times and occasionally directing his attention to the jury seated to his immediate right.

Harris described himself as a vegan, practicing Buddhist but also a child of God, a jewelry maker and tattoo artist who would lend an ear or shoulder to cry on in disputes between residents at the Ghost Ship warehouse on 31st Avenue.

When he first visited the warehouse in October 2014, after having to abruptly leave his past living space because of a bed bug investigation, he called the space "amazing."

 

"I was almost awestruck," Harris said, talking about the artifacts and items throughout the space.

He paid $750 at first to live, not at the Ghost Ship, but an associated space two doors down, at 1313 31st Ave. Months later he moved into the Ghost Ship warehouse itself, and eventually paid $565 a month in rent.

Harris described the communal living environment on the stand -- how there were "no hard or fast rules," how the space was cleaned or how rent was collected. He himself eventually helped pool the rent from other residents in a can every month. Almena gave him the number to directly deposit the rent to a Wells Fargo account that belonged to the landlords, the Ng family. Harris described either riding his bicycle to the bank, or Almena would drive him, he said.

Eventually, Harris was doing so much "volunteer hours" such as cleaning at the warehouse and having a hard time paying his rent, that he was allowed to do "work trade." In exchange for doing chores or other work at the warehouse, Harris didn't have to pay rent. He said he was one of a handful of people who either got a discounted rent for this reason, or didn't have to pay at all.

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