Lawyers representing Derick Ion Almena, the manager of the Ghost Ship warehouse, say negligence on the part of Oakland city officials was to blame for a fire that killed 36 people this month, and not their client.
In a joint statement released Monday, the lawyers said Alameda County officials who are now investigating the blaze have a "conflict of interest" and that Almena will likely be made a scapegoat in the deadly Dec. 2 blaze.
"It is our fear that improper charges could be brought against Derick and others by Alameda County in order to divert attention away from their own irresponsible agencies," the lawyers said. "It is our intention, if the need arises, to defend vigorously by showing that the real culprits are the above agencies who didn't do their jobs."
Almena, 47, is being represented attorneys J. Tony Serra, Jeffrey Krasnoff and Kyndra Miller. Sierra, a firebrand attorney legendary for his defense of the Black Panthers, former SLA member Sara Jane Olson and Hells Angels leader George Christie, said government agencies fear massive payouts as a result of civil litigation.
"Undoubtedly, there will be a civil case by decedents' representatives who will sue for millions upon millions of dollars," the attorneys said. "The Alameda Sheriff's Office, Fire Department, Building Code Inspectors, and Child Protective Services could be potential defendants in such a civil suit. All of them have repeatedly visited the premises without doing anything."
Oakland officials have repeatedly denied that fire and building officials were aware of the danger within the heavily cluttered 10,000-square-foot warehouse. The fire chief has insisted that the department never inspected the location or responded to a dispatch call there in more than a decade, and that city officials believed it was used as a warehouse, not as a concert and living space. A city building inspector who visited the address just prior to the fire was unable to gain access to the warehouse, officials say.
In the weeks following the deadly blaze, however, some Ghost Ship visitors say they witnessed city firefighters inside the building. A man who attended a concert in the warehouse in 2014 told The Times that he witnessed firefighters come into the structure and walk around.
As the building's manager and founder of an artists collective, Almena quickly fell under media scrutiny in the hours following the fire.
In a disjointed interview on NBC's "Today" days after the fire, Almena offered an apology, but bristled when asked if he should be held accountable for the tragedy.
"I'm only here to say one thing: I'm incredibly sorry and that everything that I did was to make this a stronger and more beautiful community and to bring people together," he said. "People didn't walk through those doors because it was a horrible place. People didn't seek us out to perform and express themselves because it was a horrible place."
When asked if he was accountable, he said, "No, I'm not going to answer these questions on this level. I'd rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents. I'd rather let them tear at my flesh ..."
The warehouse is one of several properties owned by Chor N. Ng. Her daughter, Eva Ng, 36, said the building had been leased as a studio space for the art collective and was not used as residences.
On Monday, Almena's lawyers said they had conducted their own inquiry into the fire. "Our investigation shows that Derick Almena committed no conduct amounting to criminal negligence," they said.
The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has yet to make a final determination on the cause of the fire. The investigation has focused on a first-floor area near the rear of the warehouse and experts are examining the electrical wiring of the building as a potential cause.
The Alameda County's district attorney has pledged a full and thorough criminal investigation.
Almena, who advertised the building on Craigslist as a "hybrid museum, sunken pirate ship, shingled funhouse, and guerrilla gallery," lived in the Ghost Ship with his girlfriend, Micah Allison, and their three children. They were not present the night it burned.
Almena has a history of run-ins with authorities.
A friend of Almena's called Allison's parents to tell them the warehouse was a dangerous environment for their grandchildren, she told the Times. She said the family complained to the county's children and family services agency, which removed the children in March of last year.
Almena posted on Facebook about the seizure of his children and his need to pass drug tests and take parenting and violence classes to get them back. The parents regained custody of their children this past summer.
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