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Attorneys blame officials for Ghost Ship deaths

by Seth Hemmelgarn

Micah Allison, the wife of Ghost Ship defendant Derick<br>Almena, spoke at a news conference Friday, June 9. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Micah Allison, the wife of Ghost Ship defendant Derick
Almena, spoke at a news conference Friday, June 9. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Attorneys for one of the men charged in the deaths of 36 people at Oakland's Ghost Ship warehouse fire are continuing to say government officials and others are responsible for the blaze, rather than their client.

Derick Ion Almena, 47, faces 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the December 2 blaze, as does Max Cardin Harris, 27. According to court records, Almena was the leaseholder on the warehouse and Harris acted as the "creative director," collected rent from tenants, and performed other duties. Both men lived in the building, located at 1305 31st Avenue.

Despite the fact that Almena had lived for years with his family at the warehouse, which reportedly didn't have fire sprinklers and was visited numerous times by police, building inspectors, and others, attorney J. Tony Serra said at a news conference Friday, June 9 that Almena didn't know the building was unsafe.

Serra, who said Almena's attorneys were angered by the charges, said, "There are ulterior motives that lie behind the prosecution of our client," who's being made "a scapegoat for the persons and entities who are culpable for this great tragedy. ... Our client has been demonized."

The "real culprits" include PG&E, Oakland's fire department and building inspectors, and the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, who all "failed completely" in their jobs to ensure the warehouse was safe, said Serra.

He said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley has charged Almena, who didn't "directly or indirectly" cause the fire, "in order to shield" public agencies, who would likely have to pay millions of dollars in damages if they're found liable for the fire.

Families of some of the victims filed civil lawsuits in connection with the incident earlier this year. Records indicate several government agencies had failed to address problems at the warehouse despite years of reports to police and others.

Attorney Jeffrey Krasnoff also said Friday that firefighters had cut a hole in the roof of the warehouse, which "accelerated the fire" and "may have accelerated the deaths."

Almena wouldn't have allowed his family to live in the building if he'd known it was a "fire trap," Serra said Friday. "He didn't ever envisage this."

Micah Allison, Almena's wife, said she's "overcome with grief and very troubled" by Almena and Harris' arrests.

"We all have been devastated by the loss of life December 2," said Allison, whose family wasn't at the warehouse that night. "We would never have lived in a place we thought was unsafe."

Allison didn't take questions Friday.

Asked how Almena didn't realize his building wasn't safe despite the lack of sprinklers and numerous visits by officials, Serra said, "Why wasn't it red tagged?"

Teresa Drenick, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said in an email, "The Alameda County District Attorney's Office holds itself to the highest of professional standards when prosecuting criminal matters; we do not try our cases in the media. ... Our ethical duty as prosecutors is to analyze the facts and apply the law to those facts, filing criminal charges only when there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the crime."

O'Malley said at a news conference June 5, the day she filed the charges against Almena and Harris, that they had "deceived" police and other officials, allowing people to live at the site and holding unpermitted events there.

They blocked one exit, leaving only one way to get out of the building, which had "no fire suppression or lighted pathways," she said.

Additionally, O'Malley said, they "very purposefully" crammed the site with "highly flammable" materials. The building reportedly was filled with pianos, rugs, artwork, and other objects.

The warehouse blaze started as people gathered for an electronic music concert. O'Malley said that there was a "nearly impossible labyrinth of the defendants' making to get out of that building."

The Alameda County Coroner's Bureau has determined that all 36 people who were killed in the fire died from smoke inhalation. At least three of the victims were transgender people.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement, "While it is a defense attorney's job to redirect attention away from their client, it is the district attorney's duty to hold those responsible for this tragedy accountable. I believe the exhaustive criminal investigation and subsequent charges" that O'Malley filed "do just that."

Almena and Harris' "reckless and deceptive actions ... claimed 36 innocent lives," Schaaf stated. "For years, they worked hard to escape legal scrutiny and deceive city officials."

The mayor continued, "The charges filed 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."

Although electrical wiring in the building has reportedly been suspected as what started the blaze, Drenick has said, "The evidence was largely consumed in the fire itself. The cause of the fire will remain undetermined."

PG&E spokesman Matt Nauman said in an email, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the victims of this tragic event. We've seen no evidence to date that would lead us to believe that our facilities were the cause of the fire."

Sergeant J.D. Nelson, a sheriff's department spokesman, previously told the Bay Area Reporter, "Other than recovering 36 bodies" from the warehouse, the sole contact his agency had with the property "was the time we arrested Mr. Almena for being in a stolen trailer" at the front of the site. Nelson didn't know when the arrest had been.

Rebecca Kozak, executive assistant to Oakland's fire chief, declined to comment for this story.

Alex Katz, the Oakland City Attorney's chief of staff, also wouldn't comment, citing the "pending litigation."

Almena and Harris' next court date is Friday, June 16 for a plea hearing. Both men were arrested June 5 and are being held in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, California on $1.08 million bail.

Each man faces 39 years in prison if convicted of the charges.

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