The devastation gave rise to a range of blame, aimed at the city and fire department for failing to enforce safety codes, the electric utility for failing to conduct proper safety inspections, the building’s owner’s for ignoring maintenance warnings, the region’s inflated housing prices which left low-income artists looking for squats, and even the Bay Area’s culture of creative tolerance. That all gave rise to a flurry of news coverage. Most notably, the Oakland-based East Bay Times won a Pulitzer Prize in breaking news for sustained coverage of the causes, aftermath and victims of the fire.
Ultimately, only two people were charged with crimes: Derick Ion Almena, who held the lease to the warehouse and turned it into an eclectic hang-out, and Max Harris, a young, groundless artist from Connecticut who had found his way to the open lifestyle of the West Coast, and eventually to Ghost Ship, where he worked as something of an on-site creative director. Each faced 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
This week, after a four-month trial involving both men, verdicts were returned. A jury deadlocked on charges against Almena; prosecutors haven’t decided whether to seek a retrial. As for Harris, the artist and acolyte, jurors found him not guilty on all counts. The verdicts offered no clarity about responsibility for the blaze, and no sense of justice for victims’ families.
Storyboard featured an annotation this past May of a nuanced profile of Harris, by Elizabeth Weir for The New York Times Magazine. The annotation, by Storyboard contributor Katia Savchuk, explores how Weir probed the myriad of unanswered questions about the fire, and about Harris’ potential culpability, without tilting toward judgment. It offers an inside look at how an enterprising reporter finds a new doorway into a much-covered story, takes readers into the center of a subculture, gains access under challenging circumstances, and builds a cohesive structure around multiple characters and perspectives.
Possibly of note: Soon after Weil’s profile ran, the judge handling the case issued a gag order that kept principles in the case from further public statements. Now, as new events in the case make headlines, it is a worthy study in in-depth narrative.