Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said Monday that she filed criminal charges against the Ghost Ship warehouse’s master tenant and another man for a fire in December that killed 36 people in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.
In announcing the filing of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter against Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena and tenant Max Harris for the blaze at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Dec. 2, O’Malley said the two men:
“… knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape, filled it with human beings, and are now facing the consequences of their deadly actions.”
Monday morning, authorities arrested Almena in Lake County and Harris in Los Angeles County, according to O’Malley.
District attorney’s office spokeswoman Teresa Drenick said she doesn’t know how soon Almena and Harris will be extradited to Alameda County and arraigned there.
O’Malley said Almena and Harris could face up to 39 years in state prison if they’re convicted.
Nearly all of the people who died in the blaze at the warehouse were attending a dance party on its second floor.
Almena’s attorneys Tony Serra, Jeffrey Krasnoff and Kyndra Miller, said in a statement that they:
“… intend to vigorously defend him in the court of law. … We believe that these charges represent no less than a miscarriage of justice and we are confident that this attempt to make a scapegoat out of our client will fail.”
Drenick said that because the building was largely consumed in the fire, the exact cause of the blaze is classified as undetermined and probably will remain that way.
Drenick said her office’s exhaustive six-month investigation into the blaze has now been completed and no one else, including warehouse owner Chor Ng, will face criminal charges.
District Attorney Inspector Cristina Harbison wrote in a probable cause statement that neither the terms of the warehouse’s lease nor local statutes permitted it to be used as a residence.
Harbison alleged that after Almena took possession of the warehouse, he and his family moved into it in violation of the lease, the Oakland Municipal Code and the California Fire Safety Code.
She wrote that Almena also began to sublet space inside the warehouse, allowing individuals to live inside the warehouse, and residents reported paying Almena between $350 to $1,400 a month for living space there.
Harbison also wrote that Almena:
“… allowed and encouraged tenants to use non-conventional building materials that he collected to create their living spaces,” including recycled dry wood such as fence boards, shingles, window frames, wooden sculptures, tapestries, pianos, organs, wooden furniture, RV trailers, rugs and other ‘ramshackle pieces.'”
Harbison wrote, “Almena substantially increased the risk to those living, working or visiting the building by storing enormous amounts of flammable material inside the warehouse,” such as wood, which “created an extremely dangerous fire load.”
She alleged that Almena allowed Max Harris to live in the warehouse and made him its “Creative Director” and Harris collected rent, mediated disputes between residents and acted as an intermediary between Almena and the building’s owners.
Harbison wrote that between 2014 and December 2016, Almena and Harris allowed up to 25 people at a time to live and work in the warehouse but never sought a variance in the zoning regulations or a permit to change the use of the building from light industrial to live/work.
She wrote that from November 2013 to last December, Almena advertised the upstairs space inside the warehouse as a venue for music events and social gatherings, knowing it was a violation of the city’s municipal code, and often allowed as many as 100 people to gather there.
Harbison wrote that law enforcement officials responded to the warehouse for multiple calls for service but when officials asked Almena and Harris if people lived there, the two men “lied by insisting that no one lived in the warehouse.”
Once Almena changed the occupancy of the building, it became his responsibility under the California Fire Code to install fire suppression systems but he never did so, according to Harbison.
Harbison also alleged that Almena was responsible for the construction of an unsafe staircase from the first floor to the second floor.
She wrote that at the top of the stairs was what witnesses described as a ramp or “gang plank” connecting the stairs to the second floor and witnesses described them “as dangerous and narrow, only allowing a group of people to travel up or down the stairs in a single file.” On the night of the fire, Harris rented the upstairs space to a promoter to host an electronic dance music event, according to Harbison.
O’Malley said, “The paying guests at the event were faced with a nearly impossible labyrinth of the defendants’ making to get out of that building” and alleged that the actions of Almena and Harris “were reckless and created a high risk of death.”
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement that she applauds the criminal charges filed by O’Malley:
“… because they send a clear message: you won’t get away with making a profit by cramming people into dangerous spaces or failing to maintain safe living conditions.”