Oakland: Artists’ warehouse founder: City officials visited building many times, had no complaints

FILE - This Monday, June 5, 2017, file photo released by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office shows Derick Almena at Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, Calif. The leader of a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse where a fire killed 36 people more than two years ago has taken the stand in his defense for the first time. Almena is accused of illegally converting the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse into an artist live-work space where the Dec. 2, 2016, fire broke out during an electronic music concert. Almena testified Monday, July 8, 2019 that he feels responsible for building the community of artists and is "responsible for having the idea" for the Ghost Ship. (Alameda County Sheriff's Office via AP, File)

By JANIE HAR,  Associated Press  OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) 07/09 — The founder of an artists’ collective in a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse that caught fire two years ago, killing 36, said that the many police, fire and other officials who visited the communal live-work space never notified him it might be a fire hazard.

Derick Almena, 49, took the stand Tuesday in an Oakland courthouse for the second day. He faces 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter along with co-defendant Max Harris, 29.

Prosecutors say Almena stuffed the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse in the city of Oakland with highly flammable materials that made it nearly impossible for attendees of a Dec. 2, 2016, electronic music party to escape when fire broke out.

Defense attorney Tony Serra repeatedly asked Almena about instances in which fire, police and other city officials toured inside the two-story building and never said anything to him about it being dangerous.

Defense attorney Tony Serra speaks to reporters outside the Alameda County Courthouse, Tuesday July 9, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. Serra’s client, Derick Almena, took the stand Tuesday as he faces 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter along with co-defendant Max Harris, stemming from a fire in 2016 at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland during an electronic music party. (AP Photo/Janie Har)


Serra peppered Almena with questions: Did you receive a notice to get permits? Never. What about a notice to red-tag the building because it was so unsafe? Never. Did you feel that everything was legal?

“It was awesome, yeah,” said Almena, adding that the artists took pride in the warehouse. “We felt good about what we were doing.”

Almena said government officials, including child protective services, local fire and teachers, toured the property on 33 occasions. They walked up and down the stairs he built to get to the second floor, where he, his wife and three children slept, and said nothing about safety.

Prosecutors say Almena illegally converted the warehouse into a living space and failed to provide smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers and other required safety equipment. They say Harris helped Almena convert the warehouse, collect rent and schedule concerts there.

Both defendants pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter last summer, but a judge scuttled the proposed plea deal after victims’ families objected to their proposed sentences as too lenient. The judge said that Almena failed to show remorse.

Serra questioned Almena about several occasions on which government authorities visited the warehouse, including the time a fire broke out in 2014, destroying a deck. Almena testified that Maria Sabatini, an Oakland fire investigator, toured the inside. Sabatini previously testified she did not tour the inside of the property.

Defense attorney Tony Serra, right, speaks to reporters outside the Alameda County Courthouse, Tuesday July 9, 2019, in Oakland, Calif. Serra’s client, Derick Almena, took the stand Tuesday as he faces 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter along with co-defendant Max Harris, stemming from a fire in 2016 at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland during an electronic music party. (AP Photo/Janie Har)


Police and fire officials were also called to the warehouse during a Halloween party when a person got trapped on the roof, forcing authorities to use the second floor to access the roof, Almena said.

Almena did not break down in tears, as he did at times Monday when asked how he felt about the blaze that killed 36 people. He digressed often and was frequently ordered by the judge to answer the questions.

Almena disputed characterizations by prosecutors that the home was a crowded maze, saying there was a clear hallway on the bottom floor. He said he tried his best to keep the place clean and safe, but he was stymied by a landlord who refused to help and who tricked him into renting a space unsuitable for working artists.

The owner of the building, Chor Ng, has not been charged and has not spoken about the fire.

Defense lawyers are also arguing that the fire was set deliberately by outsiders. Federal fire officials traced the origin of the blaze to a back corner of the ground floor of the warehouse but did not determine a cause.

Serra closed his questioning of Almena with an enlarged photo of Almena and his family. Asked if he would ever put his family at risk, he said “no.”

Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Autrey James began questioning Almena late Tuesday, pointing to inconsistent statements he had made. The prosecution continues its questioning of Almena on Wednesday.


Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Posted in: Accidents, Accusations, Courts & Trials, Deaths, Negligence, Plea Agreements, Wrongful Death

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

one × one =

Terms of Use for Posting Comments

Terms of Use

This site (the “Site”) is operated and maintained by Law Enforcement Education Foundation, Corporation (“Company”). Throughout the Site, the terms “we”, “us” and “our” refer to Company.  The words “user,” “you” and “your” as used herein refer to you.

Please read these terms and conditions of use (“Terms of Use”) carefully before contributing content. If you do not agree to these Terms of Use, please do not contribute content. Your use of the Site is subject to the Terms and Conditions found here .

By contributing content to the Site, you represent and warrant that you are at least eighteen (18) years old and that you have read and understand these Terms of Use and any amendments thereto and agree to be bound by them. If you are not at least eighteen (18) years old or you do not agree and accept these Terms of Use, you are prohibited from contributing content.

From time to time, we may permit users to submit content to the Site.  You hereby acknowledge and agree that by submitting remarks, comments, suggestions, ideas, graphics, feedback, edits, concepts, comments, photographs, illustrations and other materials (other than personal information and/or registration information) through the Site (individually and collectively, “Submissions”), you (i) grant us a nonexclusive, royalty-free, perpetual, transferable, irrevocable and fully sub-licensable right to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, translate, distribute, publish, create derivative works from and publicly display and perform such Submissions throughout the world in any media, now known or hereafter created, without attribution to you; (ii) grant us the right to pursue at law any person or entity that violates your and/or our rights in your Submissions; and (iii) forever waive any and all of your rights, including but not limited to moral rights, if any, in and to your Submissions, including, without limitation, any all rights or requirements of attribution or identification of you as the author of the Submission or any derivative thereof.  We reserve the right to remove any of your Submissions from the Site, in whole or in part, without notice to you, for any reason or no reason.

Submissions are made voluntarily. Any submissions which include personally identifiable information are subject to our Privacy Policy found here .  You may not upload or otherwise publish content on the Site that (i) is confidential to you or any third party; (ii) is untrue, inaccurate, false or other than an original work of your authorship; (iii) that relates to or impersonates any other person; (iv) violates the copyright, trademark, patent or other intellectual property rights of any person or entity; (v) contains any content, personally identifiable information or other information, or materials of any kind that relate or refer to any other person or entity other than the provider of the products, goods or services to which the Submission relates; or (vi) violates any law, or in any manner infringes or interferes with the rights of others, including but not limited to the use of names, information, or materials that (A) libel, defame, or invade the privacy of any third party, (B) are obscene or pornographic, (C) are harmful, threatening, offensive, abusive, harassing, vulgar, false or inaccurate, racially, sexually, ethnically or are otherwise objectionable or otherwise contrary to the laws of any place where such Submissions may be accessed; (D) constitute personal attacks on other individuals; (E) promote criminal, immoral or illegal activity; (F) promote or advertise any person, product or service or solicit funds; or (G) are deemed confidential by any contract or policy.

You are solely responsible for any Submissions you make and their accuracy. We take no responsibility and assume no liability for any Submissions posted by you or any third party.

Unless approved by us in writing in advance, you agree not to: (i) provide or create a link to the Site; or (ii) create any frames at any other sites pertaining to any of the content located on the Site.

We reserve the right, in our discretion, to update, change or replace any part of these Terms of Use for Posting Comments by posting updates and/or changes to our Site.  It is your responsibility to check this page periodically for changes.  Your continued use of, and/or access to the Site, following the posting of any changes to these Terms of Use for Posting Comments, constitutes your acceptance of those changes.