OAKLAND (BCN) Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena on Monday blamed the building's landlords for safety problems at the artists' collective where 36 people died in a 2016 fire.
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Taking the witness stand in his trial on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the blaze during a music party at the warehouse in the 1300 block of 31st Avenue on Dec. 2, 2016, Almena said he believes the Ng family, which owns the building, misled him about the conditions there.
Almena, 49, who wears his long hair in a ponytail, has a goatee and was dressed in a dark suit and a white shirt, said that in the fall of 2013 "I signed a lease for something that shouldn't be rented for an artists' collective."
Almena said, "I realized there was nothing there" because there wasn't any water or electricity.
He said that when he confronted the Ng family about upgrading the 10,000-square-foot warehouse, they told him that he had to accept the building in the condition it already was in.
However, Almena also said he feels responsible for the 36 deaths at the building.
"I feel responsible for having this idea (an artists' warehouse) spiritually, morally," Almena said. "I built something that attracted beautiful people to the space."
Alameda County prosecutors allege that Almena and Ghost Ship creative director Max Harris, 29, who faces the same charges, are criminally responsible for the blaze because the partygoers didn't have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn't have key safeguards such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.
Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse's lease, which only called for it to be used as a warehouse for an artists' collective, by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.
But defense lawyers say authorities visiting the building on multiple occasions before the fire never told the people who lived there that they thought it was unsafe or told them to make changes to bring it up to code.
Defense lawyers also allege that the fire was an act or arson that the two men couldn't have prevented.
When his lawyer Tony Serra asked him if he leased the warehouse with the idea of living there, Almena said, "No," but also said the subject is "a gray area."
Almena said he thought the warehouse was safe and never would have lived there with his wife and their three children if he'd thought it was dangerous.
"I believed it was safe and I was told it was safe," he said.
"I was given permission to raise my children there," Almena added without saying who gave him permission.
Almena appeared to be dejected when he first took the witness stand and paused for a long time before he even spelled his name for the court reporter.
When Serra asked him if he was tired, Almena said, "I'm tired, broken-hearted. I've been in solitary confinement for two years."
He added, "I'm just so sad."
Almena later gave long and meandering answers to some of Serra'a questions, prompting prosecutor Autrey James to object that his answers weren't responsive and should be stricken from the record. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Trina Thompson sustained most of James' objections.
Almena will continue testifying when the trial resumes on Tuesday.