Online Extra: Almena lashes out at prosecutors in second jailhouse interview
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As he awaits the jury's decision in his criminal trial, Ghost Ship master tenant Derick Almena, in another jailhouse interview with the Bay Area Reporter Sunday, August 4, slammed prosecutors, accusing them of scapegoating him and co-defendant Max Harris for the 2016 Oakland warehouse fire that took 36 lives, including three victims who identified as transgender people.
In the 25-minute interview conducted over a videophone from Santa Rita Jail, Almena responded to the prosecution's closing arguments early last week. The jury began deliberations Wednesday, July 31, and resumes Tuesday, August 6. If convicted, Almena and Harris could each face up to 39 years in prison. The pair is being charged with 36 counts each of involuntary manslaughter.
"There's only two criminals in the courtroom and it is the prosecutors," Almena told the B.A.R. "And what laws are they breaking? They are not upholding their quest for the truth. They are allowing police officers to lie, the fire department, government officials. They are protecting very wealthy owners. That to me is the crime that is happening now."
Prosecutors called the Ghost Ship a death trap and presented jurors with a diagram that depicted the warehouse as a dangerous labyrinth. Almena noted that he drew his own map of the Ghost Ship that was introduced at trial.
"And I showed the inconsistencies between the map that they kept showing and what it really looked like," he said.
The Alameda County District Attorney's office did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment.
Prosecutors said Almena and Harris did nothing to ensure the safety of people who entered the Ghost Ship space. But Almena reiterated — as his defense attorneys presented at trial — that about 50 government officials in 33 separate visits were in the Ghost Ship, some complimented him on the space and no one tried to shut him down.
Almena also blasted officials for not looking at the building's owners as possible suspects. He said he asked the owners to make a number of safety improvements and they refused. He said the landlord had a lot to gain from the fire, both in an insurance settlement and by selling out to developers.
The landlord was not charged by the Alameda County District Attorney's office in the case.
"And you never thought the owners could be suspects? This is bullshit. This is bullshit from the beginning," Almena continued. "I mean it is so fucking obvious that me and Max are bing blamed for this to get everybody off the fucking hook."
Almena said he and Harris are being made scapegoats to protect the landlord and the City of Oakland, which is facing civil lawsuits. During closing arguments, Deputy District Attorney Autrey James told jurors Almena was deflecting responsibility as a tactic to take blame away from him and Harris.
The prosecutor told jurors that Almena was a narcissist and that it was "his way and only his way."
When asked about the quote accusing him of being a narcissist, effectively forcing his will on others, Almena told the B.A.R., "If it was so unsafe why where so many, so many beautiful people living there working there and loving it and supporting it? And even coming in as prosecutors' witnesses and saying 'no, it was safe, it is not what you are saying.' How could I be controlling that?"
One of the prosecution's witnesses, Kathleen Bouchard, the mother of one of the Ghost Ship artists' collective founding members, Nico Bouchard, testified in May that Almena laughed when she asked him at a meeting to make safety improvements to the Ghost Ship. Almena said that is not true. He said he only agreed to meet with her very briefly at the urging of friends who were trying to get her to leave the Ghost Ship after she had been there for two hours.
"I walked in on the meeting, I approached the table where she was sitting, I said, 'I am not having this meeting,' and she is like, 'Well, just consider yourself served, and Nico's getting off the lease and he is leaving to Thailand in 30 days,' that's what happened."
"Why is she even testifying?" Almena said "Because she doesn't want her son to be criminally or civilly liable."
Almena and Harris are being kept in the same jail unit. During the B.A.R.'s interview, Almena spotted Harris and asked him to come to the phone, but Harris declined. Almena said he didn't want to do any interviews.
Derick Almena, the master tenant of the Ghost Ship warehouse, could learn his fate this week as a jury deliberates. Photo: Courtesy Lake County Sheriff's office