Oakland, Calif. (KTVU/Brooks Jarosz) - The owner of the Ghost Ship warehouse where 36 people died in a fire has not been charged, despite evidence she and her family knew about the dangerous conditions years earlier.
2 Investigates uncovered emails, investigative reports, and invoices that point to owner Chor Ng, along with her son Kai Ng and daughter Eva Ng, being alerted about safety issues with the building’s management and maintenance.
In June, former tenants Derick Almena and Max Harris were charged with 36 counts of manslaughter. They hosted the party where the fire broke out on December 2, 2016. Almena rented the building from the Ngs. Almena advertised the Ghost Ship as an artists’ creative space and also let people live there.
Many former tenants said the Ngs, specifically Kai and Eva, managed the warehouse and adjoining properties. They collected rent and received complaints including those surrounding the electrical system, according to former tenants who spoke to 2 Investigates.
After nearly a year of keeping a low profile, 2 Investigates tracked down Chor Ng to ask her about accountability, responsibility, and issues with her property. She refused to answer any questions and ran from the camera, even hiding her face.
Records show the Ngs were made aware of an electrical fire two years before the Ghost Ship tragedy. An invoice from an engineering firm, obtained by 2 Investigates, explained the transformer was doused to control the flames and 911 was never called. In the end, the 2014 invoice stated $32,000 in repairs were needed because three buildings were on a single transformer “severely and catastrophically overloading” it.
The engineer also noted there was “intense and endemic deferred maintenance dating back decades requiring immediate intervention to avoid additional fires.” However, defense attorneys for the two men charged said the necessary safety repairs were never made.
“I think about someone who doesn’t care about the people who were in that building,” Attorney Curtis Briggs, who represents Max Harris, said. “I think about somebody who looks at dollars and cents only and I think that’s the type of person that doesn’t maintain a building properly. And that’s the type of person that allowed this situation to happen.”
Briggs and the other attorneys representing Harris and Almena believe their clients are taking the fall for others’ negligence.
Records released by the city of Oakland show, in recent years, police had been called to the warehouse and adjoining properties at least eight times for disputes among those who lived there. Still, the illegal living went on.
In a district attorney inspector’s report written in February, an Oakland firefighter admitted he’d been to the Ghost Ship in 2014 for a Christmas party with his wife and remembered “there was a lot of stuff.” Building records prove there was no fire inspection done both before and after that party.
The Ghost Ship was no secret to anybody,” Briggs said. “The Ghost Ship just became a secret when they decided not to charge the owner and when they tried to protect certain aspects of city government.”
Code violation notices were sent to Chor Ng for “hazardous conditions” or “life-threatening safety” over the years, according to documents obtained by 2 Investigates. However, in some cases, the city and its inspectors never followed up on those code violations and issues.
California law reads a landowner must maintain the property to prevent an unreasonable risk of harm and stating “everyone is responsible, not only for the result of willful acts, but also for an injury.” That law is a key point in a major civil suit that names the Ngs.
In February 2015, tenant Derick Almena brought up the electrical system and its shortcomings in an email to Kai Ng. He complained of “a year of delays and dangerous complications” and said “I would have you…the owner and landlord…the ultimate benefactor…at the onset of any electrical issues take physical action…this was not your course.”
According to that email, Almena rented temporary power supplies and wanted to get paid back. Kai explained in an email response that “the electrical infrastructure was made very clear before your lease began.” Additionally, “I will not be reimbursing you… You are required to return the electrical system to the state it was in before your lease began.”
“[Kai] is responsible and should be held responsible for what happened,” defense attorney Sam Geller said. “It’s his duty to make sure his property is safe.”
Another district attorney investigator’s report shows that a businesswoman rented the adjacent building also owned by the Ngs for her hair salon. She told investigators the building was having electrical issues beginning in 2008. The woman claimed she contacted Eva Ng, but then became frustrated because the problems were never fixed. After 13 years, she moved her business in 2014 and said no repairs were made.
Attorney Michael Cardoza used to be a prosecutor and said the Ngs have gone under the radar.
“If there’s an empty seat there that the landlord should be in, I think that puts the district attorney in an awful situation,” Cardoza said. “If I were the trial attorney, I would look long and hard at charging the owner and her daughter and son, who were supposed to be the managers of the building, bringing them into court, consolidating those cases so you’re trying all of those defendants at once. And if they want to blame each other, let them do it in the same jury because that enhances the DA’s prosecution.”
The district attorney has never explained why the Ngs have not been charged. Despite repeatedly asking, prosecutors told 2 Investigates it is still an active case and they had no further comment. Since June, all reporter questions surrounding the case have been avoided all together.
“What we’re discussing is the charges – what we have levied against these individuals,” Assistant District Attorney Teresa Drenick said in June. “We’re not going to take questions, speculative questions like that.”
Meanwhile, warehouse owner Chor Ng is set to get a hefty payout of insurance money totaling more than $3 million to cover the damage costs associated with the deadly fire.
“She profited off this tragedy,” Briggs said. “She’s allowing two young men to be scapegoated, she failed to reach out to any of the victims’ families – never saying she’s sorry.”
The district attorney could still charge the elusive owners, which may bring some relief to the other two defendants.
“We as the public have the right to know, why aren’t you charging them?” Cardoza said. “They own building, they profited from it.”
He added, “You not only have to do justice but you have to give the appearance of doing justice. This is not the appearance of doing justice.”
Chor Ngs attorney refused to comment for this story.
Almena and Harris are due back in court for a preliminary hearing on November 13.