Ghost Ship Suspect Talks to B.A.R.
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Derick Ion Almena, one of the two men charged in connection with the deadly Oakland Ghost Ship fire, told the Bay Area Reporter that he is being made a scapegoat and questioned the relevance of some of the witnesses who are scheduled to testify against him during his preliminary hearing this week.
The Ghost Ship founder spoke to the B.A.R. from Santa Rita Jail in Dublin Saturday, December 2, on the one-year anniversary of the fire that took 36 lives, including at least three transgender people. He expressed support and sympathy for family and friends of the victims killed in the East Oakland warehouse inferno. It was the first time he has spoken to the print media since his arrest on involuntary manslaughter charges.
The Ghost Ship creator has remained in jail since he and his collaborator, Max Harris, were first taken into custody six months ago. When asked what he would say to the fire victims' friends and families if he had been able to attend any of the anniversary memorials, Almena replied, "We've never been able to support our friends ever since the fire. We have just been looked at as criminals and we are very much a part of the music and arts scene and we have been exiled.
"I am ashamed of what's happened," Almena added. "I am ashamed that we couldn't come together, that they couldn't understand my deep regret and my sorrow over this. How much I am in pain. How saddened my family is. You know, [the victims] were friends to my kids. My kids danced and made music with the friends who died but nobody has heard that story.
"Nobody wants to know that we built an artistic community," he continued. "We allowed these people to come into our home and make music and celebrate life and now we are being condemned. And I just wanted them to know that I am there with them. Even though I am here in this prison, I am proud of what we did. I am proud of what we all did every day. Because it wasn't just this one event. It was every day. Every day was a celebration for the people that lived in that space. There were 25 of us. And I want them to know that they should be proud of their children, proud of their friends, for seeking adventure, for seeking life, for being creative, that it wasn't a horrible place that they went to, they weren't trapped, they weren't seduced, they weren't lied to. They were creating their own lives. It's just a total fucking tragedy."
Many have questioned why the building's owner, Chor Ng, has not been charged in connection with the case and why none of the numerous city officials who observed the activity and conditions in the space but did nothing. The Alameda County District Attorney's office has declined to comment on why it has not charged Ng or whether charges against the landlord are being considered. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf claimed that Almena and Harris were adept at hiding what they were doing with the space from city authorities, a claim that Almena sharply disputes. Almena noted that numerous representatives from the city as well as child protective services workers who saw the Ghost Ship space and lauded him for it.
"The fire department, the police department, the chief arson investigator had all been inside the space," Almena said. "And they all said 'this is awesome, this is a cool space' and they never shut us down.
"I think we are definitely scapegoats," Almena said. "We are interesting characters. Once you isolated us we are alone in the world. We are easy prey."
In a news conference announcing the involuntary manslaughter charges against Almena and Harris, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley told reporters, "The paying guests at the event were faced with a nearly impossible labyrinth of the defendants' making to get out of that building."
When asked to respond to the DA, Almena called O'Malley's claim "entirely untrue." He noted that he worked to make the building safer after he took over the property and that he wrote on his lease application that he intended to use the space for things like dance performances, music workshops, film showings, as a cafe and for yoga, kung fu and drum classes.
"The landlord never took our lease and turned it in to the city," Almena said. "So I thought I was renting a space that was to a standard of being able to outfit it and get it ready to do all these things. It wasn't retrofitted. It didn't have sprinklers. It didn't even have water. I had to put in all of the water lines, bathrooms, and I put in a second staircase. The second staircase that people were able to come down and escape. I put in the back door. People escaped through the back door."
Almena added that Ng never changed the zoning of the space from its original intended use as a dry goods warehouse.
"That is where she failed because she didn't want to do any of the work that would bring it up to standard," Almena said.
Almena was not optimistic that the preliminary hearing this week would be fair to him and Harris. He said that many of the witnesses hadn't seen the improvements he made to the space.
"Those people have no relevance at all," Almena said. "They haven't been in the space in years. They are going to be the government's witnesses against me."
Almena and LGBTs
Almena's wife, Micah Allison, told the B.A.R. in a phone conversation last week that Almena grew up in West Hollywood and was always close to the LGBT community.
In the jailhouse interview Almena explained, "As far as who congregated our space, the whole LGBT, all these new abbreviations are new to me, you know. I created a space that was romantic and beautifully lit and whoever wanted to utilize our space, we were really happy with that especially if live music was being made. And there was a certain particular kind of crowd that really fell in love with it. We offered it up to them, and you know, from the LGBT community, I have even gotten people to think I am some horrible person but I love them. I love everyone."
Almena told the B.A.R. that he is being kept in virtual isolation. He helps pass the time by drawing. In a letter to this reporter, he enclosed a drawing that he made from part of a newspaper page.
The timing of Almena's interview on the one-year anniversary of the fire was coincidental. It had been scheduled days earlier but Allison said Almena had to cancel because he was too distraught to talk after learning that a 22-year-old man in the cell next to him had hanged himself.