Derick Almena, who ran the overstuffed warehouse that some visitors called a “tinder box,” had given several tone-deaf media interviews. But no one had taken a deep look at Harris, the mild-mannered 29-year-old who worked at Ghost Ship in exchange for free rent and cut a more ambiguous figure. Both men are facing 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in a trial currently under way in Alameda County Superior Court. (The defendants previously accepted a plea bargain sentencing Almena to nine years and Harris to six years in county jail, but a judge threw out the agreement last August.)
Weil, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, reached out to Harris through his lawyer and learned no other magazine writer had beat her to it. “I was totally surprised,” she said. The same thing had happened in 2015 when she decided to profile Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, a notorious character in the underworld of San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“There are pieces hiding in plain sight,” says Weil, who is based in San Francisco. “They seem too obvious to you, but some aren’t — particularly if you’re not in New York, where these local stories aren’t on every editor’s mind.”
Too often writers make assumptions that dissuade them from pursuing a prominent story: Someone else must be working on this already. He’s about to go to trial, so his lawyer will never let him talk. This has been covered widely — what else is there to say?
Luckily, Weil didn’t fall into those traps with Harris. “In the Ashes of Ghost Ship,” published Dec. 12, 2018, in The New York Times Magazine, is a deeply reported and moving profile that is sure to make most readers rethink how they see the defendant. I talked to Weil about how she got access to her subject, her jailhouse interview process, and how she dealt with an overabundance of material. We also annotated her cover story to delve more deeply into her reporting techniques and writing decisions. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you go about getting access to Harris?
I knew his lawyer, who was one of the attorneys for Shrimp Boy, whom I had profiled earlier. I think it helped that the lawyer knew and trusted me. From the beginning, he was supportive and didn’t get in my way or feel like he had to be there all the time. And frankly it’s not hard to go visit someone in Santa Rita Jail. You can set up an appointment online and show up.
Lawyers often don’t want defendants speaking to the press during a trial. Why do you think he and Harris agreed?
I think the lawyer thought Max was smart, articulate and gentle, that he had a good case, and that he’d been misrepresented in the press. There’s a narrative that’s been out there in the press since the beginning that Max blocked a staircase (thus preventing people from escaping the building), but court records show that he didn’t. The lawyer also knew what kind of writer I am and had a comfort level with me. I told him from the beginning that I wanted to write a profile of Max, not reinvestigate the case. As for Max, I think he was happy to have someone who wanted to hear about his life. When people are incarcerated, it’s easy to feel forgotten and like nobody cares.
As a contributing writer to the Times Magazine, do you secure access first or gauge your editor’s interest first?
I originally thought I might want to write a book about this, but I decided it would be too depressing. So by the time I pitched the article, I had done a lot of thinking about it. I knew I wanted to write about Max and had been in touch with the lawyer. I had not yet visited Max, but I knew he would talk to me. If I had pitched the story without doing that, I would’ve gotten a call saying, “This is great, but to get the assignment, you need to get the access.” If I was pitching somewhere I didn’t already have a relationship, I would’ve definitely started interviewing Max first — because you may not even get as polite a response.
How many times did you interview Harris, and what was your reporting strategy? How did you gain his trust?
I interviewed Max at the jail 10 or 12 times. The first few times, I came as a regular visitor, and I couldn’t bring a notebook or pen. I knew I needed him to feel comfortable with me if the story was going to be any good, so I just tried to be a person and establish a real relationship. I let him talk and tried not interrupt too much, and to be genuinely interested and sympathetic. I’d also ask him to call me when he could. If he had said something interesting in person, I asked him to tell me again over the phone so I could record it. After that, I went through official channels to meet with him as a journalist and could interview him for two hours at a time with a tape recorder. My strategy was to have him tell me the whole narrative in broad brush strokes, then go back and ask him to talk about certain things in more detail. In the third round, once I started to draft things, I’d ask much more specific questions.
Did you feel the need to ensure you had an exclusive?
I asked whether anyone else was doing a magazine feature about him and said, “Will you not do another one while I’m doing this?” I do think there is always a risk of losing an exclusive, but you have to have some trust with sources. I would hope to at least be at the point with people where they’d tell me if they’re working on another piece or someone else called.
Why did you decide to write about Harris as opposed to Almena, who appeared most responsible for conditions in the warehouse? Would it have been possible to focus a story on Almena, or would it have been too difficult to build empathy for him?
There are a million stories you could write about the Ghost Ship fire, but I only ever really wanted to write about Max. I found his predicament so compelling — being charged with killing your friends. In some ways, Almena is the more compelling character, and you definitely could’ve centered a story on him. He’s flamboyant and charismatic, and it was his place. But Almena is kind of a known character: the evil guru. It’s not easy, but if you’re committed to digging deep enough, I think everybody deserves empathy.
But Max is such a tragic character in a complicated, interesting way. I felt maternal toward him (one of the kids who died in the fire went to the same high school as my daughter).
You had so much potential material to work with — as you said, it could’ve been a book. Did you have a central question that framed your reporting?
I felt like I had to cast a wide net in the beginning in terms of who I talked to. What I included wound up being directly about Max’s story: How did this young man end up in this situation? An investigative piece would’ve been 10 times more overwhelming, because then everything is relevant. Still, when I started I thought, “This is too much.” The reporting was emotionally overwhelming, and it was also a slog going through lots of documents. I actually hired a journalism graduate student to help me do some research, find people and documents, and set up some interviews.
Did the magazine pay for that?
No. I just do that sometimes when I’m worried I’m going to short-circuit.
The judge in the trial approved a gag order about a month after your story came out. Was that unusual, and do you see a connection?
It’s unusual, and I think the story was definitely a piece of it. The Times is a big bullhorn, and it was not the story the prosecution wanted out there.
The annotation of Weil’s story is below. Storyboard’s questions are in red; Weil’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you will find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
In the Ashes of Ghost Ship
Max Harris did chores and collected rent at the artists’ warehouse where he lived. Now he faces trial for the deaths at a concert there — including some of his close friends.
By Elizabeth Weil
The New York Times Magazine
December 12, 2018There’s no nut graf early in the piece about the Ghost Ship fire and Harris’s connection to it. Do you think that would’ve been necessary if this subhead had not appeared? Do you feel the subhead gives too much away, or is it necessary to set up the piece? You know, it’s funny that that’s your first question. During the edit of the top of the piece, I was asked to put in a couple sentences telling readers that there had been a horrible fire and 36 people died — so not a nut graf exactly but pretty much what you’re talking about here. I argued against it and won precisely because the subhead does that job. I like the idea of the reader going in blind. But I didn’t argue against the subhead. I knew I was never going to win that one. Once a week, Max Harris is allowed to leave his 6-by-12-foot cell to go outside. The first thing he does, before the other inmates arrive in the small cement yard in Santa Rita Jail, is run around and yell, “Safari!” as he picks up all the bugs — the furry moths with leopard spots, the grasshoppers in jade armor. He wants to move them out of harm’s way before other men in red-and-white-striped jumpsuits start playing basketball. Sometimes he’ll find a honey bee in distress, lost and spinning in a circle, and he’ll give it a little water, or water mixed with apple jelly, if he can find a half-eaten packet. “It nourishes it,” he says. Or, he’ll see a moth with cobweb stuck on its antenna, and he’ll calmly, lovingly remove it. Each life is precious. Each life is beautiful. Harris, a vegetarian since age 14, believes this to his core. To Harris, even a fruit fly pirouetting in his cell is a miracle. “It’s like a dog,” he told me. “A little Labrador or something. It’s different, but it’s still this little shard of life. It’s still this spark of divinity in this moving work of art.” Presumably, you weren’t out in the yard with Harris. How did your interviews lead you to unearth this, and how did you elicit these specific details (the fact that he yells “Safari,” the types of bugs, the spinning honeybee, etc.)? That’s true — I was never out in the yard. But I did spend a lot of time talking to Harris and a lot of it was about his daily life and how he was getting through his time in jail. He told me the safari story first, in the context of talking about his relationships with the other inmates. After I turned in a first draft, Jake (Silverstein, editor of the Times Magazine) suggested that I try leading with the bugs. In that first draft, the story started with the fire. I already had talked to Harris about spiders and bees, but then I went back and we talked about bugs more and he told me about the praying mantis.
Harris has lived in this jail in Dublin, Calif., for 18 months now. Before his arrest, he lived in Oakland, in a 10,000-square-foot warehouse filled with artists. There, near his bed, in his live-work space, a spider built a nest. He named the spider Norbit, and when Norbit’s eggs hatched he named the babies Hexbit, Drillbit, Babybit and so on, and he let them stay too. More great details! Do you always “get the dog’s name,” as the wisdom goes, or in this case the spider’s? I try to get the dog’s name, yes. It can feel silly in the moment, but it’s so useful. And if I didn’t get the dog’s name in the first go-round, I call back and ask. I often have a laundry list of specific details I fish for near the end: What were you wearing? What was the room like? At the start of reporting, you can’t know what scenes you’re going to use, so you can’t ask everything. But once a piece is near closing, you know exactly what material you’re using so (to me, at least) it makes sense to go back. In the warehouse, Harris believed that he found, for the first time, a true home for his artistic dreams, a place that sanctified creativity as he felt it should be sanctified. And he did find beauty there. But he also found a darkness blacker than anything he could ever have imagined. When I met him, last spring, his long face looked drawn, the moon tattoo on his left cheek distorted under the gravity of his sadness. His limbs drooped off his 6-foot-3 frame like the branches of a willow tree. Plugs, made from the tops of hot-sauce bottles, filled the sagging, hollowed-out lobes of his ears. He is 29, but his hair, once blue, once mohawked, once dreadlocked, is streaked with gray. Many writers find it challenging to describe people without it sounding generic or cliché. Any tips on coming up with a description like this, which is anything but? I always think about what I’m hoping to convey in terms of emotion and character with the physical description, with place description, with dialogue, with everything. That gets you to a pretty specific place. So in terms of describing a person, I think: How is this story written into the character’s body and face?
In the heavy months awaiting trial, Harris has been trying to hang on to his gentleness. He has been trying to grow his compassion, so that something, anything, positive might come of all this grief. He studies Zen Buddhism. He keeps the Jewish Sabbath. He prays to his Christian God. He switches the TV from Fox News or football to Animal Planet when the other inmates, who tell him he’s like a butterfly, can tolerate it. Yet life can be cruel, and even a person striving toward right thought can set off cascades of events that go incomprehensibly awry. One day in September, Harris told me that a fellow inmate found a praying mantis in the yard. The inmate cupped it in his hands, this bright green marvel. Harris thought it was one of the most spectacular things he’d ever seen. The inmate who found the insect wanted to take it to his cell to keep as a pet. Harris intervened. “No, man,” he said, “how could you bring someone else into incarceration?” Here again, how did your interviews lead you to discover the praying mantis? See above … I just went in one day and said, Can we talk more about bugs? It felt like a sort of weird question but in reality, for Harris, it’s not. He cares deeply about living things and (along with the other people) that’s what’s living in a jail.
The inmate returned the praying mantis to the ground. “Two days later we went out to the yard and the thing was completely flat,” Harris said, shocked by the destruction. “It’s like, How do you miss that? It’s beautiful.” This is such a poignant metaphor for his role in the Ghost Ship tragedy. Did you immediately see it that way and go, “This is my lede!”? Yeah, I sort of couldn’t believe it when I was sitting in Santa Rita Jail and Harris told me the praying mantis story. It was the whole piece, this huge unthinkable saga, on the tiniest possible scale. I knew, as soon as he told me the story, that I wanted to use it to end the first section. It took me a little while to get the whole lede working though. What challenges did you run up against, and how did you solve them? Basically, I got tripped up over the fact that I didn’t have 1,000 words of bug content! A lot of the sections are pretty long in this story and I tied myself in a knot over the idea that the first section had to match. Then I just let go of all that and it worked better. Did you think about starting with a scene of him during the fire or another alternative opening? If so, why did this work better? Yes, the first draft did start with the fire. That’s how fire stories start, right? And that version worked fine, but this lede made the story much better. The truth is, I never really wanted to write a fire story. I wanted to write a character story. This is the character story lede. What wasn’t working about the fire lede? The fire lede worked okay as a stand-alone lede but it was then creating problems by making the story feel like it was looping. To write the fire lede, I had to introduce the warehouse, the stairs, the community, Harris at the point in his life …. In some ways the fire is the obvious start to give the story propulsion but it created this trade-off with sucking energy out the story later. I also think, for people who already knew about it fire (it got a ton of local press), that lede may have created a sense that they already knew what story I was going to tell. The night before Harris graduated from college, in May 2012, he shaved the left side of his head and gave himself his first face tattoo: the letters M A X, extending from the crown of his head to his left eyebrow. This was a “job stopper,” he told me, a branding of sorts, a vow to remain exiled from the mundane world of workaday jobs and devoted to a life of art. The rest of this section is chronological, starting with Harris’s early childhood. Why did you decide to open it with this paragraph, which is outside of the timeline? I had a short phase of having the whole piece start with the tattoo! Sheesh. (That was in the version with the fire lede.) Obviously, there was a bunch of trial and error. Here, it felt a little abrupt to just go to his childhood right out of the praying mantis. I wasn’t sure I’d earned enough of the reader’s trust just to go back to Harris’s start. I felt like I needed to convey that the story was under control, that I knew what I was doing, that all these small facts I’m about to tell you are in the service of character. I think the tattoo does a lot of work. It sets up Harris as an idealistic young man who makes principled, well-intended but questionable decisions.
Harris grew up in Enfield, Conn., an only child in a modest condo complex with few other children. He sneaked out as often as he could to play with the kids on a neighboring street where, he said, there were “actually houses, and they had yards.” Louise Harris, Max’s mother, was employed, on and off, as a goldsmith or a salesperson in jewelry shops. Harris’s father worked as a diesel mechanic, but he had a hard time holding down jobs because he struggled with reading, many basic tasks and his temper. Harris’s relationship with both his parents was always upside down. When Harris was 5, his parents got into a heated fight, and his mother came to Harris to seek advice. She marveled at the brilliance of his counsel. “I wasn’t just born to make you happy,” Harris, the kindergartner, said. “I was born to give you wisdom.” Five years later, Harris’s mother lost a pregnancy at six months, and she leaned on Max for comfort. “With Max,” Louise told me, “it was more a matter of me following him than me leading him.” When it came to Harris’s biography, how did you decide what to include or leave out? To me, a major part of this story is the theme of parental love — how a certain kind of love can be protective and how its absence can be dangerous. So in writing about Harris’s childhood I really wanted to focus on details that illustrate the ways in which his relationship with his parents was “upside down,” as he put it.
At 13, Harris started wearing his hair in a mohawk. At 14, his parents divorced, and his father became addicted to drugs and alcohol. At 16, a junior in high school, Harris took his first studio art class and, like a cure in epoxy, it transformed and gave solidity to his life. His art teacher soon told his mother that her son “had greatness.” At night, in his carpeted basement bedroom, alongside the cats’ litter box and a TV he refused to watch, Harris painted utntil sunrise. He didn’t view art as an interest or something he was good at. He defined it as “a state of being.” This is sort of parallel to the graf above, but setting up his relationship to art.
At Massachusetts College of Art and Design, he studied everything: painting, photography, sculpture, metalsmithing, video art. Outside class, he played and composed music: industrial jazz, future classical and surreal glockenspiel. Along with technique, his professors taught him what would prove to be their most indelible lesson: the value of living in collaborative, creative spaces. In a contemporary-art-history class, he studied Andy Warhol’s Factory, John Cage’s early happenings. He seized on the importance of artists inspiring one another, cross-pollinating and fueling their ideas by living under one roof.
After graduating, Harris moved to the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, into a $450-a-month, shower-with-a-watering-can live-work space in an old schoolhouse. He thought of himself “as a kind of character,” he says, an artistic monk. For a few months, through the end of 2012, Harris paid his rent by working as a tattoo artist and by selling (while dressed as outlandishly as possible) gemstone-on-hemp-string necklaces in Union Square. You use several long strings of hyphenated words in the previous few sentences. When and why do you think that’s effective? This is sort of pathetic, but I didn’t even think about it! I just wanted to describe him precisely, and I guess that led me into a hyphen explosion. Then the schoolhouse was sold, and he had to move out. He bought a copy of “Art/Work: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) as You Pursue Your Art Career.” Right there on Page 22 it said: “While artist loft sometimes means ‘expensive condo,’ there are still warehouses full of artists’ studios across the country. If you don’t have a studio building in your area, take matters into your own hands and create one.”
In the summer of 2012, three “hippie-yoga-craftspeople friends” told Harris that they could all get jobs in a cafe in Golden, Colo. Harris threw a couple of duffel bags in their van to join their road trip. But when they arrived in Colorado, the guy who was supposed to employ them was not even at the cafe, which itself didn’t really exist. So they kept meandering west. Harris imagined the road trip would be easier; his co-travelers argued over things he thought should be peaceful, like arcana about the Grateful Dead. Finally, the next summer, they arrived in Humboldt County, Calif., and found work on a pot farm. After a few months, he took a bus to Oakland to visit a friend.
The day Harris arrived happened to be First Friday, Oakland’s monthly art crawl down Telegraph Avenue. Harris’s friend took him to a warehouse in West Oakland that was built out like a maze, a toy. This, he told me, was exactly the “sort of utopian artist collective dream think tank” he’d been taught was ideal. As Harris crawled through the secret passages, he thought, If my professors could see me now! In the backyard of that warehouse was the most fantastic thing Harris had ever seen: a bicycle-powered Ferris wheel, with lights up the spokes and real old carnival carriages. Harris decided he had to stay. In this section on Harris’s background, it sounds like you spoke with at least him and his mother. Did you do anything else to verify what he was saying? I spoke with some of Harris’s friends, his aunt, his mother, and some teachers. Then, of course, the fact-checker talked to all of them again. There were also letters from friends/family/teachers in court documents testifying to Harris’s character.
Harris spent the next year living with his friend, sometimes sleeping on the floor. Housing in Oakland was cheaper than in San Francisco, which had grown preposterously expensive: The part of the city that had once housed techno raves and all the wondrous weirdness that spawned Burning Man itself was now home to tech titans like Dropbox, Reddit and Airbnb. The creative community remained important to Oakland’s self-conception. In October 2014 the Oakland rental market was the 21st-most-expensive in the country. (By December 2015, it had leapt to fourth.) An average one-bedroom then cost $1,900 a month. One day, Harris was cruising for affordable housing when he saw a long craigslist post. A similar listing appeared on Facebook:
“Seeking all shamanic rattlesnake sexy jungle jazz hobo gunslingers looking for a space to house gear, use studio, develop next level Shaolin discipline after driving your taxi cab late at night, build fusion earth home bomb bunker spelunker shelters, and plant herbaceous colonies in the open sun & air.”
The author was a 44-year-old artist named Derick Ion Almena, and the place for rent turned out to be a couple of blocks away from the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland, near the corner of 31st Avenue and International Boulevard, across from a Wendy’s. Almena was the master tenant of a big unheated industrial warehouse, but the space he offered Harris was two doors down in the same building, a storage space subleased from Custom O’s auto body shop. The rent was $750 a month. Harris took it. He hung a sign on the wall that read “Call Mom ASAP” and started cleaning out the stuff that Almena was storing there: sheet metal, an old dentist’s chair, a sawed-in-half pickup truck filled with wood. Where did these details come from? They came from conversations with Harris and Almena. Almena was a scrapper. He collected almost anything somebody else wasn’t using: bongos, plywood, fence pickets, bulletin boards, mirrors, hubcaps, plastic carousel horses.
Almena wore low-rider fedoras and spoke in a slow weed-smoker’s bedroom voice. He was handsome, a dark mustache and goatee on his butterscotch skin, lithe, even leonine, sexy in a way that makes you worry about the human race and its cross-wiring of attractiveness and danger. This is another evocative description. One thing that makes it compelling, I think, is that it boldly comes from a certain perspective (yours). It can be daunting to offer an assessment of someone’s appearance like that, rather than sticking to the facts of hair and eye color. Did you always feel comfortable doing this? Do you have any tips on how to do it well? Nope — I didn’t always feel as confident being overt about my own perspective, though I wish I had. Tips? Try to take off the filter while you’re drafting and say the thing that is close to unsayable, the thing that makes a reader go, “Did she really say that?” You can always edit out later. Emotion is a plus, in my view. It’s another layer, not a flaw. And you have more access to your own emotions than you will ever have to anybody else’s. He had worked as a concert promoter; he had traveled the world; and his photography had hung in San Francisco’s prestigious Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Almena took out the lease for the warehouse in 2013 for an artist collective called Satya Yuga. He saw the warehouse, he told me when I met him in November, as “a pirate ship washed up on shore, and the pirates are all insane, like after they’ve gotten drunk and eaten a bunch of mushrooms and killed the captain. I was like the new captain, the crazy captain.” Almena subletted out spaces to artists. He intended to hold classes and art shows at the warehouse and rent it out for events. You don’t have too many quotes from Almena in the piece. Was that by choice or because you only spoke to him briefly? Almena didn’t agree to talk to me until a couple weeks before the piece started closing. And even then, he declined to meet with me at length. Santa Rita Jail allowed me to meet with Harris for two hours at a time, in the same kind of setup that inmates use to meet with lawyers (small conference room, no guards present, no glass separating us, no shackles). This option was available to Almena — and I would have vastly preferred to talk to him that way. But he declined. So we talked on the phone several times, and I visited Almena as a regular visitor, meaning we talked for 30 minutes through thick glass.
Almena lived by what he considered to be the wisdom of the ancients: a stew of religious iconography, trance music, free love, psychedelics, archery in the Oakland hills, plus operas staged at Burning Man, an event he loved until it became, as he posted in capital letters on Facebook, a “village of hungry ghosts. The capitalistic driven over-ticketing, pompous catering of favors and privileges,” a “crotchless dot com midlife crisis.” He had a fondness for the Hindu goddess Kali, who wears a skirt of dismembered arms and wields a bloody sword in one hand, a severed head in the other.
The warehouse, once part of a milk-bottling plant, was later named Ghost Ship, and those words were graffitied in huge pink block letters on the building’s facade. Where did you learn it had been a milk-bottling plant? I believe from the East Bay Times. They did an incredible amount of reporting. Inside, Almena started building his dream world. He and the other artists subdivided the space with walls hodgepodged together out of amps, bits of bookcase, faded hanging rugs and carved Balinese wood panels. Almena lined a hallway on both sides with pianos facing each other, so people walking through could stretch out their arms and run their fingers over both sets of keys. This is a great detail. Where did it come from? Almena told me this.
Harris had taken a seasonal job color-correcting greeting cards. Each weekday morning he put on a dorky shirt and rode BART into San Francisco where, he told me, nobody talked about anything more interesting than which food truck they would go to for lunch.
A week or so after Harris moved into his sublet, he was commuting home from work when his cellphone rang. “You need to get back right now,” Almena said. “I have something, a present for you.”
Harris said, “O.K., great.”
“But it’s going to cost you,” Almena said.
“Oh,” Harris replied.
“But you definitely want it. You need to cough up $500.”
He had drained almost all of his savings to pay his initial rent and “buy-in” fee to Almena, but he withdrew $500 from an A.T.M. and returned to 31st Avenue to find a giant pirate ship on a trailer, likely someone’s creation for Burning Man. Did you fact-check this incident and the dialogue with Almena? Yes.
Harris felt manipulated by the gift; saying no had not felt like an option. But the pirate ship was fabulous, and Harris started staying up nights refinishing it. Almena seemed able to tap straight into Harris’s desires — even those of which Harris himself was only dimly aware. “I didn’t even know that I wanted it,” Harris said of the pirate ship on the trailer. But then he did. “I’m like, This is totally what my heart is yearning for.” Why was this a good place to end the section? I wanted to end with Harris feeling really up. All this — Almena, the warehouse — felt like a beautiful dream for a while. That has to be established. Satya Yuga had its own logic. You had to tolerate people playing music at all hours of the night. You had to not use your toaster and your teakettle at the same time because the electricity was channeled from Custom O’s auto shop to the warehouse and then dispersed through a complex river system of wiring and extension cords. You had to work on your own art, collaborate with the other members of the collective and also help build the living, breathing art installation that was the warehouse itself. The mock contract people signed upon joining the collective had only one condition: “Be Unconditionally Awesome.” Why did you start this section with an overview of Satya Yuga, rather than with the first sentence of the next paragraph (Harris’s chronology)? I really didn’t want the story to read like “and then and then and then.” I think stories start to feel that way if every section starts with a date.
In December 2014, Harris left Custom O’s and moved into Ghost Ship. By that point, the 10,000-square-foot space had become deliriously maximalist: drums everywhere, chandeliers everywhere, vintage typewriters, Indonesian antiques, Afghan rugs, early 20th-century shipping trunks, dozens of pianos and organs. Just inside the front door was a 10-foot-tall wooden Garuda statue surrounded by a sprawling montage of flea-market paintings, hand tools like you might find in a long-lost grandfather’s workshop, parasols, fertility-goddess statues, plastic mannequins and nostalgic family photos of God knows who. The staircase leading to the second floor, set back 12 feet from the entrance on the right side of the building, was a campy surrealist take on a Louise Nevelson collage or a post-apocalyptic disaster, depending on your point of view. The bottom third of the staircase consisted of wooden palettes; the middle third was a section of a prefab staircase; the top third was a ramp, a single plank of wood, with small wooden slats nailed across it so your feet didn’t slip as you made your way up. Is describing the staircase in such detail a conscious bit of foreshadowing? Is foreshadowing something you do naturally or add in later? I always knew that I had to describe the staircase in detail, so I think I wrote this early in the drafting process. It was actually a much longer description for a while, but it was sort of boring and confusing. It wasn’t easy to get right. The building had no heat. There were no fire alarms, no sprinklers, no emergency or exit lighting. What were your sources for all the description in this paragraph? Oh lord, so many different places. I had transcripts of all the preliminary hearings, and there was a lot of talk in those about the environment inside the warehouse. I interviewed Harris, Almena, Micah Allison (Almena’s wife), and a bunch of other people who lived at the warehouse. I had old photos. I also visited the warehouse while reporting, and you could still see burned remains of parts of the staircase, among other things.
Almena, who considered himself to be the father of the space, lived upstairs with his family: his wife, Micah Allison, and three dreamy, free-range hippie kids: Bolonik, Shai and Surya, then ages 11, 5 and 3. Allison, trained in dance, was serenely beautiful: raven-haired, tawny-skinned, a true testament to fertility, pulling off the title she gave herself — Mother Superior — and tribal belly dancing to the drum beats the collective made. The family had a proper kitchen, a big family bed topped with a canopy of sequined wedding shawls and a bathtub ringed with plants. The kids rode bikes and scooters around their loftlike lounge, which doubled as an event space. Where did you source the description of their space? This is from (Amena’s wife) Allison.
Harris had a live-work studio on the first floor, as did most of 15 or 20 other residents — the number varied over time. Many of the artists teetered on the edge of homelessness; one moved into the warehouse after living in her car. Down the hall from Harris was Peter Wadsworth, who was 36, the resident genius, a Reed College graduate who built drones and replicas of ancient Egyptian sculptures and who one member of the collective referred to as “our Dumbledore — our wise wizard.” Farther down lived Carmen Brito, then 27, a substitute teacher, poet and ceramist, into archery, survival skills and primitive arts. José Avalos, then 36, worked outside the warehouse as a carpenter and then returned to make theatrical Latin-Kabuki style masks and Polynesian-inflected papier-mâché figurines. Anthony Perrault, then 25, another resident, was a seamstress and fashion designer with dreads. He and Almena’s wife, Allison, liked to watch the documentary “Paris Is Burning” while he colored her hair. Several evenings a month, musicians from greater Oakland would show up to jam as well, bringing with them their marimbas and African clay drums. One man played a Rajasthani ravanhatta, a string instrument that was hung with sleigh bells.
Andrew Ruiz, now 27, a musician who also lived at Ghost Ship, spent his afternoons teaching art in elementary-school aftercare programs. He described the Satya Yuga aesthetic as what would happen “if the Brothers Grimm made a trailer park.” Ruiz grew up a weird kid in San Diego. “You’re just you,” he wanted to tell the popular crowd that rejected him. “You have such a problem with me being me.” Like Harris, he took a bildungsroman road trip before ending up in Oakland, and like Harris, he had a hard time affording somewhere to live. For a while, he crashed in a friend’s parents’ damp garage. He thought he finally found a place, only to be told that the landlord found another tenant who could pay six months in cash up front. On the night after Thanksgiving 2015, he tagged along with friends to a party at Ghost Ship. As soon as he walked in, he said, “my jaw dropped, my heart sang, my gut tingled.” How many former Ghost Ship residents did you talk to? How did you decide who and what made it into the piece? The attorney in the civil case has tried to scare everyone who lived at Ghost Ship out of talking to the press. Still, I talked to eight people who lived there, though many did not want to be on the record.[/annotate
Six weeks later, Satya Yuga was his home. Ruiz didn’t object to being awakened at 3 in the morning by warehouse mates drumming or thrashing about in their studios — creativity was more important than sleep. He fed off the shared spirit of artistic struggle, the sense that Satya Yuga was a surrogate family. “You could always cook for yourself, but rarely would you need to,” he said. “People would find food outside the bakeries or stores. It was perfectly great food, and they’d be like, ‘This is for my brothers and my sisters,’ and we would be so happy because we had food to share.” Why did you think it was important to describe what life was like there from the perspectives of people other than Harris? My editor, Ilena Silverman, really encouraged me to put more of this in. I spent four hours interviewing Ruiz but didn’t include any of it in my first draft.
One day not long after moving in, Harris was scanning the free section of craigslist when he saw a listing for trees — whole trees! Was this exclamation you capturing Harris’s voice? Sort of? It’s more my attempt to capture his sensibility — his amazement and wonder. Which I guess is his voice, so yeah. Harris had a trunk cut into six-foot-long columns and delivered to the warehouse. He used them to build a large box with his bed inside and a platform above, for tattooing clients. To the box, he attached a huge redwood branch, and he and Almena’s son, Surya, spent several mornings threading little plastic flowers to its smaller branches. “When I showed Derick, I remember him being so happy that I involved his son in the project,” Harris said. Almena often gave tours of Satya Yuga to friends and always took them to Harris’s studio. “Max,” Almena told me, “was my showpiece.” What did you make of this quote? Almena was genuinely proud of Harris, I think. He (Almena) is just truly a mess. And he was even more of mess during the years at the warehouse when residents said he was using meth. He also cannot see the world outside himself. So Harris is his creation, not his own, independent person. After his seasonal greeting-card gig ended in early January 2015, Harris was broke but happy. He hoped to devote himself full time to his art practice. But mostly he got pulled into Almena’s vortex. Almena, so monomaniacally obsessed with his warehouse that he missed his brother’s funeral, flew into rages and ripped down people’s studio walls if they didn’t conform to his aesthetic. He held autocratic meetings of the collective, dispensing wrath and love. How did you fact-check the previous two sentences? Almena wrote a very long history of his time at the warehouse that he gave to some reporters, including me. The detail about missing his brother’s funeral is from that history. The details about Almena’s behaviors in the warehouse came from interviews with many people who lived there. “There is something about him that can make you feel special,” Danielle Boudreaux, then a friend of Almena’s, said, describing his power. “You are the most important person at this party right now. You have my back. You are my right hand. All this is because of us, me and you — we did this.” Then he would yank his affections away. He broke you down and filled you up — often in public. “His working behavioral model for keeping control of the collective seemed to be: ‘If you step out of line in front of 15 people, and I make you feel stupid, you’re going to be quiet, you’re going to be shut down and then maybe in a couple hours, I’m going to make you feel like the most important person in the room, so everybody brings you back into the fold,’” Boudreaux said.
The older and more stable Satya Yugans resisted Almena’s mind games. Next door to Harris lived Nikki Kelber, now 46, who made luscious feather earrings and leather jewelry and whom Harris referred to as Martha Yuga, a riff on Martha Stewart, because her space was always so nice. She had a cabinet full of glassware. She hung her pots from the wall. She also had boundaries. “I just tried to keep to myself and do my own thing,” she said.
Yet Harris was a willing acolyte. Soon Almena — who saw part of his job as inspiring others to create, with a firm hand if necessary — started making up elaborate projects with ludicrous deadlines and demanding that Harris work all night to get them done. Lay these bricks in the garden. Pick these bricks up. Take all the spindles off the backs of all these wooden chairs. According to several residents, Almena’s dedication to building and rebuilding his ever-more-layered I Spy pastiche was increasingly fueled by drugs. “Derick and I got into some unhealthy practices,” Allison said. “At first it was like, ‘Let’s get this done,’ and then it got out of control.” How extensively did you talk to Allison? Was it hard to get her to talk to you, and why do you think she agreed? Like Almena, Allison agreed to talk to me near the end of the reporting process. We talked on the phone quite a bit for a few weeks. I think she wanted to be heard, and I think she also believed talking to me was in her best interest. We discussed the value of her talking to me explicitly. Addiction doesn’t make anything excusable, but it does make it easier to understand.
If Harris resisted Almena’s commands to work through the night, Almena berated him, calling Harris degrading names. Occasionally, people who lived at Satya Yuga told me, Almena spoke to Harris in a sharp German accent, pretending that Harris, whose mother was Jewish, was his Jew, his slave. Harris insisted to me that Almena meant this as a joke. But others in the community, observing how Almena humiliated Harris, did not find it funny. “It got to the point,” Harris said, “where some people had even thrown around the words Stockholm syndrome.”
In early 2015, Allison’s mother called the Department of Children and Family Services at the Alameda County Social Services Agency. Several months earlier, she was contacted by Boudreaux, whose son attended school with Almena’s children. Boudreaux had noticed that some days those children weren’t being picked up from school; other days they didn’t show up at all or they showed up hungry, their heads crawling with lice. That March, the agency removed Bolonik, Shai and Surya from the warehouse and sent them to live with Almena’s mother and sister, who lived in Los Angeles.
Harris first considered leaving the collective in the fall of 2015, when they attended a music festival called Symbiosis Gathering. That year, the event took place at a reservoir in the high-desert foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Shortly after the Satya Yugans arrived, Almena set them to work constructing an ornate Balinese templelike structure, from which they were to sell chai tea. His mood was horrible. Children and Family Services still had his children. In the desert, he erupted in violent outbursts over things no one could control, like the wind knocking over the temple walls. Harris said to himself, “I’m done with this guy.”
But after Harris returned to Oakland, he became more enmeshed than ever as Harris and Almena agreed that Harris would live at Satya Yuga rent-free in exchange for helping out. From then on, at Ghost Ship, Harris was on call 24 hours a day unclogging toilets, mopping, mediating tenant disputes, collecting rent money (and then taking that rent to the bank so that Almena didn’t blow it). He also communicated with the building’s landlords, Chor and Kai Ng, who owned some 10 buildings in Oakland, including a Vietnamese restaurant, a bakery and a grocery. Still, Almena’s verbal abuse continued and, Harris says, “I would just kind of keep my mouth shut and take it.”
He believed this was the path of deepest compassion. Anger, destruction and addiction came from pain — a dynamic Harris understood well from his own father, who turned up with no place to go at Harris’s first college apartment. In the warehouse, if Almena was acting paranoid and fuming, Harris just dropped whatever he was doing to carry some ridiculous pile of junk from Almena’s van to the yard or carry that same ridiculous pile of junk from the yard to the dumpster. To what extent do you try to capture the character’s voice outside of quotations when you write? Weirdly, this is sort of the main thing I’m interested in these days. How do you infuse the whole story with character, not just the quotes? He figured, if he just did what Almena said, maybe Almena would calm down, find his banjo, settle into one of the many threadbare couches upstairs and fall asleep for the first time in days. When Almena was really bad off, gnashing and foaming at the mouth, Harris told me, he would cook for him, bring him cigarettes and speak to him sweetly.
The year 2016 appeared to be the start of a brighter future. Almena had his kids back. Harris says that Almena bestowed on him the title of “creative director,” which Harris liked. Still, in mid-November, Harris flew to New York to explore “doing the bicoastal thing.” Some part of him knew that he needed to leave. Yet while in Brooklyn, for the first time in his life, Harris felt homesick — homesick for Satya Yuga. “I had a nest, a place to go back to,” he said. “As far as stability goes, I hadn’t really had that.”
At the warehouse, on Thanksgiving, Almena roasted a couple of turkeys. Harris cooked vegan dumplings. Kelber contributed cranberry sauce. A handful of stragglers from the greater Oakland underground art scene showed up uninvited — they knew they would feel welcome there. In the big open room on the second floor, “we gathered as many chairs as we could,” Harris said. A drum circle formed. Part of the hope on offer in the warehouse, as Swan Vega, an events bartender who lived at Ghost Ship, described it, was “that family love can unite people where you don’t actually need to be punitive. Doesn’t that sound like a pipe dream?”
The next day Harris started cleaning. A few weeks earlier, a music promoter reached out to Harris to see if Ghost Ship was available to host a show on Dec. 2. The lineup would be a bunch of aggressively out-there electronic music acts, headlined by the pulsing, psychedelic synth sounds of Golden Donna. In preparation for the show, Harris scrubbed the overused bathrooms. He shoved the couches to the perimeter of Almena’s living room. He placed the cowboy hat on the Garuda’s head in the way he knew Almena liked. Then on the Friday night of the party, Harris showered, pulled on a black sweater, bought a burrito and sat on a stool inside the warehouse’s front door. What questions did you ask to elicit all of these specific details, down to the perfectly angled cowboy hat and the burrito? I spent a really ridiculous amount of time reporting this piece. I talked to Harris many times about that night. As I mentioned earlier, once I know I want to write a specific scene, I’ll often interview someone again and again just to get details for it. It’s a practice that comes from ghost writing and co-writing other people’s stories. Someone will tell you something important that happened to them. To render the scene well, you have to go back and get all the small details.
Admission was $10 before 11 p.m., $15 after, though given that this was an Oakland warehouse party, it was also Notaflof — no one turned away for lack of funds. Almena was not home. A condition of Almena’s children returning to live with the family, according to Allison, was that they not be at the warehouse during parties, so Almena, Allison and the children had decamped to a hotel. (Children and Family Services declined to comment.) Most of Harris’s fellow Satya Yugans did not attend the show, either. Many were out. Some were in their studios, making art. Others were trying to sleep or flirting with dates. By 11:15 p.m. about 100 guests had arrived and walked up the eclectic art project of a staircase. There’s the staircase again. Was this more foreshadowing or incidental? The staircase is so central to everything. It’s like Chekhov’s gun. Harris’s friend Micah Danemayer, 28, an electronic musician, was D.J.-ing images that night onto a large projection screen. Danemayer was another big, tender misfit who had found what he took to calling his “mutant family” in Oakland’s underground art scene. Danemayer had a real family in Boston who loved him: a father who put money in his bank account when his son’s funds ran low, a mother who sent starving-artist care packages consisting of brownies, a grocery-store gift card and a pack of socks. Just the day before, in love for the first time, Danemayer moved in with his girlfriend, Jennifer Mendiola, who was studying for her doctorate in health psychology. His stuff sat in his new home’s hallway in plastic storage crates.
On the second floor, a woman sat at a table offering $5 bang trims. Another woman was painting people’s nails. One guest, Em B, 33, a poet who worked in a coffee shop and traded Kurt Vonnegut quotes with her father, texted her wife back home: “Oh my God, this place is a trip. I can’t wait to tell you about it.” Cash Askew, 22, a much-beloved trans femme guitarist, chatted with Feral Pines, 29, another trans musician who almost always dressed in a tank top, black leather shorts, boots and a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament necklace. Michela Gregory, 20, a San Francisco State University student, stayed close to her boyfriend, Alex Vega, then 22, who earlier that night parked his silver Mazda Miata at the San Bruno BART stop. On the way out of her parents’ house that evening, Gregory told her father, “Dad, I’m going to spend the night with Alex.” “I love you,” her father called out as she stepped through the door. “I love you, too,” Gregory said. Were you consciously trying to build suspense in this section about who came out alive and who didn’t? I was trying to build emotion more that suspense. I wanted this quote here to build toward the ending.
Around 11:20 p.m., Harris decided to leave his post at the door to go inside Ghost Ship to use the bathroom. As he entered the building, he noticed the light looked strange — a glow on the ceiling. He ran to his studio and grabbed a fire extinguisher. But by the time he returned, eight or 10 seconds later, the fire was out of control. At 11:23 p.m., Carmen Brito, the potter and substitute teacher, who lived in the back of the warehouse, woke up in a room filled with smoke and called 911. Upstairs, as fire rose through the baseboards, people started shrieking, pleading, streaming down the strange staircase. The sequence of these three “ing” verbs is so effective at conveying the terror of the moment. How did you think about describing the experience of the fire — getting across its weight and horror, without going over the top? Were there things you ended up revising or leaving out? There was so much material I could have included here, but I really didn’t want the story to feel sensationalized or macabre. This part used to be somewhat longer, but I never intended to write thousands of words about the fire itself.
Oakland Fire Department Station 13 was only a block away. The first firefighters arrived at 11:25, but the flames were already out of control. Firefighters crawled into the building with breathing tanks and shot water up toward the inferno on the first-floor ceiling. They hoped to keep the fire contained near its origin in the rear of the warehouse, but as they crept deeper into the building, it jumped over them. The smoke consolidated into a sludge so thick it created a total blackout. After the low-air alarms sounded on the fire crew’s tanks, the chief ordered them to evacuate. They had to follow their hoses, like cave divers with guide wires, to find their way out. That’s a memorable image. Where did these details come from? I had just a crazy overabundance of reporting material. This is from the firefighter testimony in the preliminary hearings and from the fire investigation report.
One attendee, Aaron Marin, who’d stayed at Ghost Ship as a guest, remembered that there was a window on the second floor not visible behind the projection screen. He decided to jump through it and tried to get others to follow him. But it was too loud, too dark, too hot, too terrifying. He used a power cord that was melting to slow his fall and landed uninjured, but no one else jumped out. Inside, a woman in a green dress and a red beanie sat on the first floor in a wicker chair, screaming for those above not to come down, chanting, “This is the will of the spirits of the forest.” Wow. Who told you this? This is in the preliminary hearings, too.
Once that staircase caught fire — it’s impossible to know the order of events with certainty, though one person who escaped reported that some who started down the stairs came back up, yelling “not good” — people wrapped themselves in rugs. The air in the warehouse grew so hot that, one survivor reported, he felt his skin peeling. Harris held the front door open, yelling: “Follow the sound of my voice! This way!” Michela Gregory and Alex Vega embraced, his body on top of hers to shield her from the flames and heat.
A final text from the building, according to The East Bay Times, which won a Pulitzer Prize for its Ghost Ship reporting, said: “I love you. I’m going to die, Mom.” When do you think it’s important for magazine writers to credit local reporters, and when is it unnecessary? I’m so indebted to the East Bay Times — they definitely needed to be credited. This quote was also reported several different ways in several different places. I decided to go with the East Bay Times version, so fact-checkers wanted me to note where the language came from. In the early minutes after the fire, Harris believed that everybody made it out. He saw Carmen Brito. He saw Nikki Kelber with her cat. “Please tell me you’re O.K.,” he texted Danemayer. Then, as he stood in the Wendy’s parking lot, the devastation began to snap into focus. Where were the dozens of others he greeted as they entered the warehouse for the show? The police started compiling a list of the missing. Parents started to show up. Over the next 48 hours, the death toll began to rise: Four confirmed dead. Six confirmed dead. Nine confirmed dead. Danemayer died. Danemayer’s girlfriend, Mendiola, died. Harris’s warehouse mate Peter Wadsworth died after another warehouse mate, Bob Mule, tried and failed to pull Wadsworth out. A high school student in the Pacific Boychoir Academy died. Two Cal undergraduates died. Thirty-six people died that night — the youngest 17, the oldest 61 — in the most deadly structure fire in the United States since 100 people died in the Station nightclub in Rhode Island in 2003. By the next day, news outlets across the country began reporting the same narrative: The building was a deathtrap.
Eyes immediately turned to Almena, who at first seemed not to understand the gravity of the situation. Hours after the tragedy, even before the fire was fully extinguished, Almena posted on Facebook: “Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone.”
Early Monday morning, he stood in the predawn darkness on the corner of 31st and International for a live interview with the “Today” show. His arty, charismatic guru aesthetic was still intact — his fedora a little too dashing on what should have been a deeply bowed head.
Matt Lauer said good morning, then dispensed with the niceties.
Lauer: “Mr. Almena, let me ask you a couple of questions. Thirty-six lives were lost in that building over the weekend. The family members of those who were lost want answers. … Are you the man who should be held accountable?”
Almena: “… What am I going to say to that? Should I be held accountable? I can barely stand here right now.”
Lauer: “It’s a fair question, Mr. Almena. Obviously there were some conditions in that building that may have led to a dangerous situation and led to what happened there.”
Almena: “I laid my body down there every night. We laid our bodies down there. We put our children to bed there every night. We made music. We created art. …”
Lauer: “Are you worried that you will be charged?”
Almena: “I would rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents! I’d rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions.”
Lauer: “Mr. Almena —”
Almena: “I’m so sorry. I’m incredibly sorry. What do you want me to say? I’m not going to answer these questions.”
Lauer: “Then we’ll end the interview there, Mr. Almena.” Why did you quote this interview at length? I wanted to quote this entire interview. It was incredible. And I didn’t want to just report on the “Today” show reporting. I wanted it to feel raw.
The city of Oakland, too, found itself in the cross hairs within a matter of days and weeks. It turned out that city officials had known for well over a year that Ghost Ship was dangerous. More than half a dozen municipal employees had been inside the warehouse, including a fire captain named George Freelen, who claimed that in 2014 he sent a report to the fire marshal’s office (which that office believes it never received), concerned about the “high fire load.” The police knew as well. Body camera footage obtained by The East Bay Times shows two officers inside Ghost Ship on Sept. 8, 2015, in response to a property dispute. One says to the other, “One spark, one spark and it would all be bad. … It’s like a huge fireplace here. … I would be so worried about all the electrical wires.” Child and Family Services was concerned, too, and the police went to the building after being contacted by the agency. A neighbor on 31st Avenue called the police dozens of times, according to KQED, concerned about the noise and the endless flow of old junk that arrived at the building, some of which then sat on the sidewalk.
As details began to emerge, the fire was not understood as an isolated, idiosyncratic catastrophe. It was understood as the product of civic and societal failings. In the years leading up to the fire, the Oakland Fire Department had been chronically underfunded, understaffed and mismanaged. Between 2011 and 2015, the department employed neither a fire marshal nor an assistant fire marshal — and it is the fire marshal’s job to ensure that property owners and tenants follow the city’s building code. To deal with the fallout after the tragedy, the fire chief retired. (The fire marshal hired in April 2015 eventually resigned.) The Oakland city attorney’s office signed a $90,000 contract with a San Francisco public-relations firm “for the purpose of managing and minimizing the City of Oakland’s potential exposure to liability for claims and litigation that may arise out of the Incident,” the contract read. The firm’s duties included conducting “scrimmages as needed for the City Attorney and its clients” — that is, coaching Oakland officials how to deflect blame away from themselves.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms worked with the Oakland Fire Department and the Alameda County Arson Task Force on the investigation. The 50-page Origin and Cause Report, released on March 18, 2017, classified the cause of the fire as “undetermined,” although many important details surfaced after that official report, suggesting the fire was electrical. A refrigerator caught fire in the warehouse on the night before the tragedy. The warehouse’s wiring was a known, protracted problem. In 2014, according to The East Bay Times, when the building’s transformer blew, the Ng family replaced it without permits using an unlicensed electrician, who told them at the time that the wiring was “grossly unsafe” and needed another $15,000 in upgrades, which were not performed. (The Ngs, through their lawyer, declined to comment.)
The Pacific Gas and Electric company was named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed in 2017 by the victims’ families for failing in its duty to inspect the warehouse when the utility installed two SmartMeters on the Ghost Ship’s block. The utility “either knew or should have known,” the suit claimed, that Ghost Ship’s egregiously jury-rigged electrical system posed “an imminent threat.” The City of Oakland was named as a defendant in the lawsuit as well. When the city moved to have itself dismissed from the case, a judge refused in November, stating that Oakland had a “mandatory duty” to address known safety concerns. (The civil trial is scheduled for next fall.)
Beyond all this was the feeling that the runaway cost of living in the Bay Area — and its attendant housing crisis — was culpable as well. Artists lived and worked in unfinished, unpermitted, unmaintained warehouses because the traditional rental market had become hopelessly out of reach; squats, in one form or another, were the only places artists could afford. The Oakland mayor, Libby Schaaf, a day after the fire, proclaimed herself to be “passionate about preserving and lifting up the incredible creative community that makes this incredible city what it is.” She also talked about safety at artists’ warehouses. But when she spoke at a vigil in downtown Oakland a few days later, she was booed. The mayor then tried to mend her relationship with her more creative constituents by signing an executive order giving owners of illegally inhabited spaces up to 60 days to come up with plans to bring those properties into compliance with building regulations. But who would pay for all those upgrades: the sprinkler systems, the insulation, the fire doors? Without major subsidies or a housing-market crash, there was no math that made those underground art spaces both affordable and up to code.How did the story evolve structurally during revisions? The biggest change is that my first draft started with the fire. After the fire, Harris stayed with friends for a while, spending whole days talking only to the cat, unsure he wanted to live. Passing the Fruitvale BART stop had become unbearable. Hearing the drum circle at Lake Merritt had become unbearable. Riding his bike across town, seeing friends of friends — it was all too hard. Why did you avoid repeating “unbearable” a third time? I wanted to create a feeling of avoidance. You know, not just say it was unbearable but make the reader feel the deflection. So in March 2017, he boarded a bus, in a rainstorm, for Los Angeles to try to start again.
In his backpack, he carried all his possessions: a few T-shirts and a pair of too-big jeans he picked out of the piles of clothes people donated to the artists who lost everything in the fire. He had some money in the bank, too, as Harris, like everyone else who had lived at Ghost Ship, except Almena, received funds from charities to help them rebuild their lives. On the trip to Los Angeles, Harris also brought his laptop, a small battery-powered synthesizer and a book on Transcendental Meditation “to put my mind, you know, in a place of holiness and reverence, a place beyond life and death.”
In the Inglewood neighborhood of Los Angeles, Harris rented a loft in a former auto-body shop, across the street from an elementary school. The place had cement floors, a huge roll-up door and natural light, “the most honest” light, in Harris’s view. Harris tried to nest. He built a workbench and furniture out of scrap materials he found in the yard. He painted a couple of walls white and one sky blue. He bought an induction stovetop, which heated food with magnetic energy instead of a coil or open flame. He thought about holding workshops in his studio to teach people how to make their own engagement rings out of cuttlebone. But being awake was excruciating, and being asleep was excruciating.
On the morning of June 5, 2017, he woke up to banging on the metal roll-up door. He slipped on his flip flops and opened his loft to about a dozen law-enforcement officers with guns drawn. He could hear the schoolchildren playing at recess across the street. How did you get this detail? Did you ask him to describe each of his senses at that moment? Yup, I asked Harris to tell me about this day in great detail. At first he thought it must be a mistake, a big mistake. Maybe his neighbors had done something? The cops cuffed his tattooed wrists and took him down to the station. They handed him several sheets of green paper. The warrant read: Why did you quote from the warrant in such detail? I wanted to use primary documents in this story as much as I could — like the “Today” interview. I had much more of the warrant in the initial drafts, too.
People of the State of California
Max Cardin Harris
Derick Ion Almena
“The undersigned, being sworn says, on information and belief, that Derick Ion Almena, Max Cardin Harris did, in the County of Alameda, State of California, on or about December 2, 2016, commit a felony, to wit: Involuntary Manslaughter, a violation of section 192(b) of the penal code of California, in that said defendant(s) did unlawfully, and without malice, kill Jason Adrian McCarty and Jason Adrian McCarty, a human being. …
The document felt like a bludgeon, hammering home the loss, each victim’s name stated twice. Was this how it felt to you, or how Harris said it felt? That’s how it felt to me. And of course, almost all readers will have not read that document. So I wanted to relay how it felt to them. In my mind, this is the same issue as the physical description you were asking about earlier. I think adding emotions to descriptions is a plus.
Cash Askew; Em B; Jonathan Bernbaum; Barrett Clark; David Cline; Micah Danemayer; Billy Dixon; Chelsea Dolan; Alex Ghassan; Nick Gomez-Hall; Michela Gregory; Sara Hoda; Travis Hough; Johnny Igaz; Ara Jo; Donna Kellogg; Amanda Kershaw; Edmond Lapine II; Griffin Madden; Joseph Matlock; Jason McCarty; Draven McGill; Jennifer Mendiola; Jennifer Morris; Feral Pines; Vanessa Plotkin; Wolfgang Renner; Hanna Ruax; Benjamin Runnels; Nicole Siegrist; Michele Sylvan; Jennifer Kiyomi Tanouye; Alex Vega; Peter Wadsworth; Nick Walrath; Brandon Wittenauer.
There were 36. Why did you decide to repeat this number here, even though you mentioned it above? Thirty six is such a big number. I never wanted to lose the weight of that. I also felt very strongly that we needed to include the names of everyone who died. That was a bit of a battle.
Harris was told he could make three calls. The only number he knew was his mother’s. He didn’t know if she could handle it. Still he dialed, bracing himself, unsure what he was going to say. But before he started speaking his mother said: “I know, I know. The whole world knows.”
“What do you mean?” Harris asked.
“It’s all over the news,” his mother said. “Everyone knows.”
The same day, Almena, too, was arrested at his new home in Lake County, in Northern California. Both men were moved to Santa Rita Jail. Bail for each man was initially set at $1.08 million, $30,000 for every victim — far more than either could post. The landlord, the Ng family, was not charged.
Harris spent eight months in solitary confinement — for his own protection, he says the guards told him. He tried to maintain his sanity by reading through thousands of pages of legal documents from the case, hoping to aid in his own defense. The state claimed that the warehouse was flagrantly, cavalierly dangerous. Almena was responsible as the master tenant. Harris shared culpability as second in command.
On Dec. 6, 2017, a year and four days after the deadly fire, preliminary hearings began. Testimony lasted six days, the last of which was Harris’s 28th birthday. Each morning, Almena and Harris arrived at Superior Court of Alameda County, in downtown Oakland, shackled in their striped prison jumpsuits. On the second day, a young man named Nicholas Bouchard took the stand. He testified that Almena persuaded him to co-sign the Ghost Ship lease. Bouchard said he built festival stages with Almena and lived with him on a pot farm in the Santa Cruz mountains — one of the many young men in Almena’s orbit who “had issues with our father figures or father,” Bouchard recalled. Did you attend the hearings in person? No, the hearings took place before I started reporting the story.
A couple of weeks after signing the Ghost Ship lease, Bouchard arrived at the warehouse one day to find a huge hole had been cut in the second-story floor. Concerned, he told his mother, and together they prepared for a meeting with Almena to discuss how to make safe, legal changes to the space. Almena arrived on the appointed day, two hours late; he scoffed at Kathleen Bouchard’s meticulous mind-set and ignored her. She then dedicated herself to maternal arm-twisting until her son cut ties with Almena. “It had a very, very dark side to it,” she said in court about her son’s relationship to Almena, “and my primary concern was to make sure my child was O.K.”
Over the six days of hearings, the state compelled a series of Satya Yugans to testify. Many of them remained so committed to their counterculture ideals that they didn’t really believe in the court system and its method of enacting justice. A gulf in understanding opened in the courtroom. Between the outré artists and the gray-suited custodians of law, there was almost no shared language. What was a family? What was music and what was noise (and was calling your music “noise” an insult)? Was your real name the name your parents gave you or the one bestowed on you by your friends? What qualified as a home? What did it mean to say something was beautiful?
On the stand, José Avalos tried to explain Ghost Ship’s appeal. Most shared living spaces in Oakland, even if you could afford the rent, “they don’t really want to see you,” he said. They don’t love you. They don’t care. “They basically want you to be like an invisible being.” At Satya Yuga, Avalos said, “Derick just told me to just be me.”
“So is it safe to say that it felt like a place that you could be yourself?” a defense lawyer asked on cross-examination.
“A place you could call home?”
“A place where you could be an artist?”
He, and everyone else who took the stand, conceded that the warehouse seemed far from complying with Oakland’s building code. But the feeling among people who lived there was that arresting Harris made no sense. They found the prosecution’s idea that Harris held what the district attorney described as “a leadership position in the warehouse” manipulative, infuriating and absurd. About Almena, some testified that they were scared of him. Rodney Griffin, an electrician and former friend, called Almena a “narcissist.” Nicholas Bouchard described him as “in very subtle ways extremely emotionally manipulative.”
But they were clear about Harris. “You’re going to try to make him like he’s a commander, and it’s not real,” said Swan Vega (in the transcript, she’s identified by her given name, Leah). How did you decide whether to use people’s chosen or given names in the piece? I tried to call people what they called themselves. “This is just not correct.” Yes, Harris helped get the rent money to the bank. Yes, Harris coordinated with the music promoter. Yes, Harris cleaned the warehouse for the party. But Harris had no power. Everyone who lived in Satya Yuga knew that.
“He was like Cinderella,” Vega said. “Max was a servant’s heart. That’s what he was.”I talked to Harris a lot in the spring and summer of 2018. He’d been in jail a year. I talked to Harris’s mother on the phone, too. Why do you tell the reader this, and why at this point in the story? This paragraph is the core of the piece to me, in some ways. I needed to bring Max’s mother back here to set up for Kathleen Bouchard (below). Her voice sounded like a single thin strand of hard caramelized sugar, sweet but ready to crack. Wow, I love that! Part of the magic of parental love — its ballast, its power — is that your family will always be there for you. Their love will build for you a steadfast home in your heart, and the stability of that home will give you the strength and the sense of self required to extract yourself from bad situations when you need to leave. Harris never quite had that. No parent, like Kathleen Bouchard, was determined and able to wrest him away from risk. Instead, even in prison Harris felt a duty to take care of his mother. He worried about not being able to provide for her “on top of all of this.” Why did you think it was important to draw this conclusion for the reader? I made this more explicit at the request of my editor. Kathleen Bouchard is the foil. She’s the highly competent, protective mom Max never had.
For a while, each time I visited, I found Harris behind the thick glass divider in his red-and-white jail jumpsuit. To talk to me in a visiting slot in his cell block, he had to lean his lanky body over to the side of the cubicle because the cord on the phone attached to the wall was humiliatingly short. He reminded me to clean the mouthpiece of the phone on my side of the glass each time I sat down. Why did you include this detail? He tries so hard to be good and thoughtful of others. And yet ….
There was no way for Harris to process the situation, no way to assimilate the facts. He always thought that if he moved gently through the world, the world would move gently over him. He thought that if he helped others, good karma or Jesus or both would take care of him. Had he not done enough? Every time he entered the courtroom, he felt the vast weight of the community’s grief and accusation. “It’s just wrong,” he said of the whole situation into the jailhouse phone. He lost friends in the fire. He had his own trauma to work through. How had his life taken him here, with all these bodies laid at his feet?
One day in April when I visited Harris, he told me that the guards had woken him up in the middle of the night and searched his cell. They took his soap and deodorant and left another inmate standing in his boxers in the cold cement yard. The casual cruelty disoriented him. He had nightmares at night. He had nightmares during the day. What does it mean to have nightmares during the day? He sleeps a lot during the day, so. Also, this mirrors a phrase you use above: “Being awake was excruciating, and being asleep was excruciating.” When is this kind of repetition useful? I think it helps a reader feel that it’s unrelenting. He tried to get himself into a positive mind-set before calling his mother or anyone else, because he felt he shouldn’t drag others down. She hadn’t come to visit — she didn’t have money to fly to California and, anyway, Harris didn’t want to put her through seeing him in jail. Harris’s father, who remarried and had another child, had not visited either.
Almena, too, was in jail and not doing well. Shortly after his arrest, he was moved to the Glenn Dyer jail in downtown Oakland. He’d gained 60 pounds. He spoke in person to a local TV news reporter at KTVU twice, once in November 2017 and again in June 2018. He cried during the second interview when he talked about his children, then he remembered all the children who had died and that it was cosmically unseemly for him to cry in public about his own; his face collapsed as he sunk into the quicksand of his own pain. When his children visited him in jail, he told them he was now on a spaceship. He would be leaving soon, and he didn’t know when he was coming back. He hated for his children to see him locked up like this. He longed to touch their warm, soft skin. No one touched him anymore except to lock him in handcuffs.
If he was lucky, he slept for 18 or 20 hours a day. In his dreams, he visited every studio in the warehouse. He saw Harris making jewelry, Nikki Kelber making feather headdresses, his wife upstairs belly dancing. It was all beautiful again. Then he woke up behind bars. When I visited him in November, he looked defeated, subdued. Up against the glass that divided us, he propped pictures he’d drawn of eyes, wide and wildly searching, on pages he ripped out of “I, Claudius.” Are Harris and Almena in the same jail? Do they communicate? They’re not in the same jail, but they see each other at court dates, as they’re being tried together. It’s still a very, very complicated relationship.
Harris never wavered in his belief in his own innocence, though he lost faith that he could get a fair trial. He saw himself as a convenient scapegoat, a way for Oakland to deflect blame and scrutiny from its own failings and keep the public’s hunger for justice and punishment trained on Almena and him. In June 2018, after nearly a year in jail, Harris agreed to take a plea deal. He told me that he also hoped he could ease the families’ suffering, to some small degree, by saving them from the horrid spectacle of a trial. Those proceedings, and their inevitably sensationalized news coverage, would “peel off a scab,” he said, for families who had just started to heal. The deal, negotiated by Harris’s and Almena’s lawyers, included them both, as their cases had been joined since the outset, and the district attorney’s office planned to present for each nearly the same set of facts. The deal stipulated that Harris would receive a six-year sentence, while Almena would receive nine. On July 3, 2018, in Oakland Superior Court, his hair pulled back in a respectable bun, Harris sat as the judge read each of the 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. For each one, Harris replied, almost inaudibly, “No contest.”
“It took over 20 minutes to read the names,” Harris said to me later at Santa Rita Jail. “It was horrible. Every time they read a name, another corner of the courtroom would break out wailing.” Harris, in the courtroom, started weeping, too, and could barely talk. “Every name is like a blow,” he said. “Hearing the names of some of my friends, like Peter, Micah. …”
The judge accepted each of Harris’s no-contest pleas and found him guilty on all counts. “To have to take that and feel that judgment and have that even be uttered into the universe — that was just a hard, hard thing,” Harris said.The sentencing hearings were supposed to be a formality. In the month leading up to them, Harris prayed and kept the Sabbath and studied Buddhism. He knew each family would be granted the opportunity to make a victim-impact statement and that those statements would be brutal. “These people are obviously hurting so deeply and they’re transmuting that suffering into anger,” Harris said. He felt it was his duty not just to sit there in the courtroom but to listen with an open heart, let the words in. He didn’t want to be “mentally blocking my ears and trying to shield myself from taking it head on.”
Late on the morning of Aug. 9, the benches of the courtroom filled up with families and friends of the victims, plus a few family and friends of the defendants. The space felt hopelessly small and wrong, but it was inevitably all going to feel small and wrong. This was a criminal-negligence case that was trying to perform the civic emotional work of a mass-murder trial. The community needed the proceedings to do much more than call two human defendants to account for negligence; the community needed catharsis. The trial needed to create monsters, then decree those monsters must be locked away so that the world could be made safe and right again.
Harris, along with Almena, entered from a side door. Harris seemed to be trying to hold on to a bit of himself, the gentle hippie artist, by wearing an undershirt he tie-dyed with jailhouse juice packets and crushed colored pencils. In the gallery, Harris locked his gaze on his mother, whom he hadn’t seen in 14 months, her long face dazed with the impossibility of her task. He mouthed, “I love you,” and he told me that he tried “to transmit as much love as I possibly can with my eyes.” She had come to California to support her son. Her presence, perhaps, would make Harris seem human to all the other parents in the courtroom, many of whom believed Harris was responsible for their children’s deaths.
The second family member to speak was Linda Regan, who lost her 34-year-old daughter, Amanda Kershaw, in the Ghost Ship fire. She had no mechanism to salve her rage. “I am a Christian, and I try to live my life accordingly,” Regan said to Harris and Almena. “I’m supposed to forgive and turn the other cheek.” But she was ruined by her grief, by their warehouse. She could not forgive. “I am not that good of a Christian, and I am not capable of doing that yet,” she said. “What you did was despicable, and you should both pay for that. You took 36 beautiful souls and erased them from all of their loved ones’ lives.”
Family after family wanted Harris and Almena to know that loss did not get easier to bear. The sorrow did not decrease, it radiated. A young woman named Lesley Moran took the stand to talk about her 6-year-old twin daughters whose father, Alex Ghassan, died in the fire. “When they ask me if they can ask Santa to have Daddy come back from the spirit world for even one day, for Christmas, and I have to tell them that they can put it on the list, but it’s not possible. And I have to just watch their faces fall. They talk about death all the time. And that’s not normal.” How did you decide to feature these statements out of all of them? Oh god, some stuff just punches you in the gut.
The horror followed by sadness followed by horror followed by sadness flowed and overflowed and kept overflowing. There was no way to contain it, nor should it have been contained. Colleen Dolan, who lost her daughter, 33-year-old Chelsea Dolan, described standing out in front of Ghost Ship for hours on that awful night, breathing in the same awful fumes that killed her child, feeling the same awful heat. Sabrina Fox, Chelsea’s sister, stood in front of the burning warehouse with her mother as well. “Days later when we finally received her body, she was like smoked meat, her skin and hair charred from the intense temperatures,” she said.
A series of parents came forward:
My child was “right on the precipice of tumbling into her greatness as an adult human.”
My child was “planning to come home over the weekend so she can study for her finals. She wanted to sleep at home in her comfortable bed.”
“The only positive thing to come out of Nick’s death for me is that I’m no longer afraid of dying. When I’m dead, I will either be with Nick or no longer grieve for him.”
“I used to be a nice person.”
Almost all the parents who addressed the court disapproved of the plea deal. Harris and Almena would very likely be released in two and three and a half years, respectively, given the months off for good conduct and time served. It did not seem enough. “Thirty-six people who you greeted that night and collected money from — I don’t know if you remember my daughter. …”
“Your Honor, unless you too have lost a child, it is impossible for you to conceive the desperation with which I implore you to reconsider this plea deal. …”
The presiding judge, James Cramer, who was standing in for Judge Morris Jacobson, who had approved the plea deal but was now on leave, interrupted. “I’m going to stop you,” he said. “I have.” When you report in court, what kinds of things are you looking for and noting down? Do you transcribe in real time, or rely on the court transcript? Did you try to talk to some of the parents? I was away for this hearing, so I just got the transcript.
The next day Harris took the stand and apologized. He knew words were inadequate and that he would have to use words anyway. “I am so deeply sorry and regret all of my actions, my inactions, my lack of foresight, my lack of awareness that contributed and led to this tragedy,” he said. “I — I never would have begun to imagine that any of my actions over that time could have led to something like this. It’s completely unfathomable. I don’t even really know what words to offer, because words feel hollow; they don’t come close, and I’m sorry.” He continued, “I’m deeply sorry. I don’t expect forgiveness. I wouldn’t ask for that. I know that nothing I can say comes close. It’s incredibly difficult to address everyone, because I know nothing I can say will come close. I’m sorry.”
Almena, too, took the stand, and this went less well. Even now, here, he could not conjure a world that did not revolve around him. “To go back to the day before the fire to say, ‘Derick, do you wish that you didn’t embark on this hard journey, perilous?’ I would have said: ‘No, man, this is what we’re doing. This is so beautiful,’ ” he told the court. “If I could tattoo flames and doves and crows on my body and the names of your children, I would — and I will.” Then Almena read from a statement he prepared. “If I could give each of you my life, if I could give you my children’s life, I would. That’s not the way this is going to work out. I’m sorry.”
After a two-hour recess, everyone returned to the courtroom. Over the two days of hearings, the families of the victims had made it very clear in court that in addition to being wrecked by loss, they felt legally aggrieved. They were angry that the landlord had not been charged. They were angry that the city of Oakland had not been charged. They were angry that P.G.& E. had not been charged. And then there was Almena’s performance at the hearing — his apparent lack of contrition, his offer to sacrifice the lives of his own son and daughters and the thought that he would tattoo their dead children’s names on his skin.
To the great surprise of everybody present, the judge threw out the plea deal. “I am expressly rejecting the plea bargain as to Mr. Almena,” Cramer said. He added: “Mr. Harris has expressed from the outset, unconditional remorse. He was at the scene, he stayed at the scene, met with the officials, has done so from the outset.” But Harris and Almena had a package deal; either both defendants pleas were granted or neither was. So Harris’s plea, along with Almena’s, was thrown out.
“I do not know that it will do any of these victims any good,” Cramer said of forcing the case to go to trial. A trial was no guarantee of justice. A trial would certainly not bring justice with regard to the city of Oakland, P.G.& E. or the landlords. But the judge would let a jury decide the fates of Almena and Harris.
Harris remains in Santa Rita Jail and most likely will until his trial, which is scheduled to begin next April. Why did you decide to publish the story when you did, rather than following it through the trial? Covering the trial was never the plan. The timing was not my choice. I turned in a draft in July and wanted it to run sooner. But things can be slow, and they didn’t have a slot. Some days it’s hard, and he cannot tell the prison psychologists he’s depressed or they will take away his socks — in theory so he doesn’t use them to harm himself. (Officials at Santa Rita Jail declined to comment.) “I mean, just the overwhelmingness of this whole experience,” he said. “It’s like being a survivor of war and then someone telling you that the whole war was your fault.”
Each morning he reads the daily spiritual parable from “The Book of Awakening.” He relaxes if the guards decide to handcuff him when they take him out of his cell — “if it makes you feel more comfortable,” is how he sees it. “If there’s less of a chance that you’ll be jumpy and Tase me for scratching my nose, then great.” He has read the Bible three times since he entered Santa Rita. He studies Buddhism and looks for ways to model equanimity and grace. When a wildflower seed blows into the yard, he says, “I have to take that as pure poetry.” He tries to call his mother every day. He forgives his father for his absence and wishes he could be a better brother to his father’s other son, who is now 8.
It strains the human heart — and all the wisdom of the great books of the world — to hold all this suffering. Thirty-six families learned their children died. Why did you want to repeat this fact here, close to the end? This is a fact that is never allowed to go away — for the families, for the readers, for Max, for me. Each story is a complete universe of pain. In none of those stories does the child come back. Each of those children was loved.
Harris tries to sit with it all, to let the unfathomable in, but a person can only absorb so much sadness at one time before the mind breaks down or deflects. So Harris takes in this swollen, shattered world in the ways he can. Love that phrase: “swollen, shattered world.” Thank you. The truth is, I was kind of insecure about this phrase. And I still am. 🙂 Recently, in his cell, Harris read a story in National Geographic about Alex, an African gray parrot who could count and identify colors like a small child. He cried when he told me about the bird. Alex had worked with the same trainer his whole life, Harris said, and his trainer cared deeply for him. The last thing Alex said to his trainer, on the night before he died, was: “I love you.” Why did you decide to end this way? Was it a purposeful choice to bookend the story with anecdotes about animals? I knew I wanted to end with the parrot before I decided to put the bugs at the beginning. But yes, I liked the bookending. I also wanted the resonance with the young people telling their parents goodbye. God, I might cry again just typing this.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the college that Peter Wadsworth attended. He graduated from Reed College, not Reed University.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified a woman who gave a statement at a sentencing hearing and misidentified the victim she spoke of. She is Linda Regan, who spoke about her daughter, Amanda Kershaw, not Susan Slocum, who spoke about her daughter Donna Kellogg.