Derick Almena, leaseholder of the Ghost Ship warehouse, and Max Harris, a tenant in the building, have been arrested for involuntary manslaughter. They each face 36 counts in the December inferno at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland, according to Nancy O’Malley, Alameda County’s District Attorney.
The fire started during an electronic concert and dance party, killing dozens of people who were unable to escape the two-story blaze as the dilapidated warehouse burned. One of the two exits to escape the fire was blocked, said authorities.
On Monday, O’Malley reported that these two individuals “knowingly created a dangerous fire trap with very few escape routes. They then packed that area with partygoers and are now faced with the gravity of what they caused.”
If convicted of all 36 counts, Almena and Harris would each be facing up to 39 years in state prison. Both men were arrested early Monday.
Teresa Drenick, Assistant District Attorney, did not offer any information on Harris, but according to probable cause document, he lived at the Ghost Ship and was the creative director who collected rent and the acting intermediary between the warehouse owners and Almena.
Just after the fire, Almena apologized to the families of the victims while strenuously defending himself, claiming he never would have intentionally put his tenants in any danger.
“I’m here to say just one thing: I am profoundly sorry,” he said on NBC’s “Today” show.
On Monday, Almena’s lawyers said: “We will vigorously defend our client in court. These charges represent a serious miscarriage of justice. We have every confidence that this attempt to scapegoat our client will ultimately fail.”
CNN was unable to reach a lawyer for Harris.
O’Malley claims that these men were reckless in setting up a death trap. She said they housed up to 25 tenants in the warehouse and deceived the building owners and officials about this. Almena and Harris permitted large amounts of flammable materials to be stored floor-to-ceiling in the building, she said.
“We continue to grieve the loss of these 36 vibrant young women and men who should be here with us now,” she said.
People filed complaints weeks before the fire
Darin Ranelletti, Interim Director of Planning & Building for city of Oakland, told CNN in 2016 that the Ghost Ship had not had an inspection in the last 30 years.
“That means no one applied for a permit for any work on the building in the last 3 decades. We have no violations on record for work on the interior of the main building submitted for that street address,” he went on to say.
Three weeks prior to the fire, the latest complaints were filed with the city.
“Inspectors went out to the address in November to follow-up on a complaint about an illegal structure and blight on an adjacent lot,” Ranelletti said. “That lot does not have the same address as the Ghost Ship.”
The warehouse, along with the lot next door, had become a dumping ground for oil containers, old cars, trash and pests, according to various complaints.
According to records, a lot of the complaints were about the lot, mentioning a “ton of trash piling up” as well as “an unlawful interior structure” at the Ghost Ship next door.
According to the probable cause document, “Almena allowed tenants to utilize unconventional building materials, things he collected, in creating their individual living spaces. These materials were often recycled dried out wood items like fence boards, window frames, shingles, wooden sculptures and furniture, organs, pianos, tapestries, rugs, RV trailers and other discarded items.”
Authorities said the precise cause of the fire might remain undetermined due to the severity of damage done to the contents of the building.
Lawsuits maintain dangers were long known
After the fire, the families of Michela Gregory and Griffin Madden, who perished in the blaze, filed lawsuits, naming the owner of the building and certain employees of various county and city departments as defendants. The lawsuits claim these people knew that the Ghost Ship posed serious dangers long before it went up in flames.
Among those who knew or should have known about the hazards are members of Oakland’s Fire Department. They actually “held and attended a musical event” at the warehouse before the fatal fire, according to the lawsuits. The lawsuits also say that the closest fire station is just a block away.
Aside from legal claims against Alameda County and the city of Oakland, the Gregorys and Maddens target the owner of the building, Chor Nar Siu Ng, along with landlords Almena and Micah Allison.
Other defendants named in the lawsuits are a California music label, a promoter, a musician from Madison, Wisconsin along with two landlords of properties nearby who “provided services and utilities to the Ghost Ship, which included electricity and a restroom that invitees and patrons could use on their premises during musical and other entertainment events.”
Drenick was mum as to whether there would be any more criminal charges filed. “At this point, the 36 involuntary manslaughter charges filed are the 36 we stand by.” She went on to say that the investigation by their office has been completed.
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