Lawyers for Ghost Ship manager say they fear he will be charged to hide government negligence
A firefighter walks through the burned-out Oakland warehouse on Saturday.(David Butow / For The Times)
Firefighters walk through a debris-strewn warehouse where a fire killed at least nine people in Oakland.(David Butow / For The Times)
Titus Cromwell, 4, places a flower from his family’s garden near the scene of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Daryl Norman, 63, of Oakland stops by the scene of the fire on his way to church in Oakland. “I had to come see for myself,” he said of the 36 victims. “God bless them.”(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
People stand at the perimeter holding flowers while watching crews remove material from what remains of the “Ghostship” warehouse fire, that burned and killed at least 36 people in the Oakland neighborhood of Fruitvale.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
An art installation near the scene of the Ghost Ship fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
People pay their respects Dec. 11 near the scene of the warehouse fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Mourners observe a moment of silence for the lives lost in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire at the Oakland Museum of California on Friday evening.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)
ATF agents map the scene of the fire investigation Friday at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland. (Francine Orr/ Los Angeles Times)(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)
Rain falls on the memorial for victims of the Oakland warehouse fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles TImes)
Jacob Ramirez, 4, left, looks on while his grandmother Eva Ramirez, 52, consoles Hillary Morse, 22, right, of Oakland near the site of the warehouse fire in Oakland.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Flowers, candles and notes, memorializing those killed and injured in the “Ghostship” warehouse fire that burned and killed at least 36 people in the Oakland neighborhood of Fruitvale.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
A man who identified himself as Ben P. reads cards on Sunday at a memorial near the site of the blaze.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
Kristen Grzeca, a music teacher at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, hugs Monina Sen Cervone, director of world music and dance at the school, on Sunday at a makeshift memorial for victims of the warehouse fire. A 17-year-old victim was one of Grzeca’s students.(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
After attending church, Teionna Cunningham of Oakland leaves flowers near the site of the fire.(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
A Seventh Day Adventist group prays on Sunday near the scene of the fire on 31st Avenue in Oakland.(David Butow / For The Times)
Flowers are left near an Oakland warehouse where a fire broke out during a concert, killing 36 people.(David Butow / For The Times)
Dino Graniello, left, and Jessie Xenakis light candles near the scene of a warehouse fire in Oakland that killed at least two dozen partygoers.(David Butow / For The Times)
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 ...”
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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