By Simone Aponte and Lisa Fernandez - Derick Almena gets it.
He gets why he’s behind bars at Santa Rita Jail, effectively in solitary confinement, on 36 charges of involuntary manslaughter, one count for each of the lives lost in the Ghost Ship fire nearly one year ago. And he gets why people are mad at him, for the mess inside the warehouse and for making initial blunders on social media after Oakland’s deadliest fire in city history.
But in an exclusive 90-plus-minute television jailhouse interview last week with KTVU, the artist and former “master tenant” of the Ghost Ship said that while he feels he bears some of the responsibility for the deaths, there are others who should share in the blame, too.
And he said emphatically that he should not be put into the same category as killers “David Koresh, Charles Manson and Jim Jones.”
He spoke, often in meandering statements and offering sometimes confusing and conflicting accounts, in a small interview room inside the jail surrounded by a reporter, two photographers, two Alameda County sheriff's deputies and two lawyers, including high-profile attorney Tony Serra. It appears as though he’s gained at least 20 pounds since his arrest.
On one hand, he acknowledged he is partially to blame. On the other hand, he said doesn't want to "blame anybody." And at one point, he also declared his innocence. It was also easy to get him to tick off a list of those he believes should also bear some of the fault for the Dec. 2, 2016 fire at 1305 31st Avenue in the Fruitvale District. But at the same time, he also said he "didn't want to blame anybody."
His list of those who should carry the blame includes: The Ng family, who own the Fruitvale District property; PG&E; and the many, many guests who made music and art inside the collective. Plus, there were more than 20 artists who “inhabited the space,” Almena said, and all of those people should share some of the responsibility.
In different parts of the interview, Almena casted fault with groups, and then absolved them. At one point, he said that the police and firefighters who visited the warehouse, and even played the pianos and organs inside, should share in the blame. Later, he said they shouldn't because they were friendly and came to dance there with him and his children.
"They didn't shut us down because we were awesome," he said of the police and firefighters.
Finally, Almena got a little esoteric about who he believes is most at fault for the deaths of the 36.
“I blame God,” he said. “Fire is God. Fire is life." He drew artwork in prison to depict what he means: The word BLAME is in all capital letters hovering over the crying eye of God.
Then Almena paused.
"But blaming God is ridiculous," he conceded. "It's a joke.”
He also pointed out that after all of its investigations, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives could not pinpoint the cause of the fire. So, is there anyone really to blame at all? he wondered.
I’m in charge?
He did acknowledge why he is in jail.
“But because my name is on the lease, I’m responsible,” Almena said, saying that at the time, the landlords preferred someone older than 40 years old sign the paperwork and he was it.
Then he laughed. Why should he be the only one in jail, just because he signed the paperwork?
“I’m in charge?” he asked rhetorically. He said he was too busy being an artist and raising three children with his wife, Micah Allison, to be the single mastermind behind the collective. He said he had no hand in throwing the electronic party on the night of the fire, which is why he took off for a hotel down the street with his wife and three children.
“I’m a scapegoat,” he said. If everyone who had visited or touched the Ghost Ship “shared in the burden,” of what happened that night, he said, “then that would be the closest thing to fair.”
In a separate interview with Almena’s wife, Allison said that it’s also really hard for her to answer whether she thinks she and her husband are to blame with his “freedom on the line.”
“Do I feel a sense of responsibility?” Allison asked, continuing without really answering her own question. “I will carry this for the rest of my life. I believe they are always with us and I believe that there has to be a great purpose and a greater reason. Do I feel responsible?”
She sighed and closed her eyes: “I will forever carry a great burden.”
Plaintiff’s attorney agrees with him - to a point
Perhaps surprisingly, at least one person involved in the web of lawsuits filed after the fire, agrees with Almena.
Mary Alexander, a San Francisco attorney representing 12 of the 31 families who have sued him because of the deadly fire, sees his point.
“I would agree with him," Alexander said. "The owners have a non-delegable duty, meaning that they can’t delegate to him to have a safe building.”
She also believes that PG&E is at fault for supplying the electricity and should have spotted abnormalities with his jerry-rigging, and that the city and the county are also at fault for having sent officials, such as police and firefighter and child protective workers, to the warehouse and who did nothing to shut him down.
But that’s about all she agrees with.
“I don’t agree that he should get less punishment,” she said. “He knows he’s in trouble. He’s trying to scrub off his responsibility."
Justin Berton, spokesman for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, added that it seems as though Almena and his legal team are trying hard to paint a sympathetic picture of him, despite the evidence in front of prosecutors.
"For years, Derick Almena and [co-defendant] Max Harris worked hard to escape legal scrutiny and deceive City officials," Berton's statement read. "Their actions put many innocent people in danger. It is the job of their attorneys to distract the public from the misdeeds of their clients; it is the District Attorney’s duty to hold the guilty accountable. The mayor is confident the exhaustive criminal investigation and subsequent charges filed against Almena and Harris will do just that.”
The Ghost Ship created a new fear of evictions
Almena’s interview comes nearly two weeks before the one-year anniversary of the Dec. 2, 2016 Ghost Ship fire, an act that not only took the lives of three dozen people, but changed city policies in terms of permitting, creating a new fear of evictions and code enforcement in the city, which had once regularly allowed artists communities to exist, without much regulation.
The Ghost Ship was an extreme violation of this underground community because Almena, and Max Harris, his co-defendant and former “creative director” of the Ghost Ship, turned this collective into a messy, chaotic, unsafe “death trap,” where people weren’t able to escape, prosecutors charge.
The pair were both arrested in June as the only two charged criminally with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter stemming from the fire. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Reckless, "death trap"
The prosecutor’s’ charging documents allege the two acted “recklessly, creating a high risk of death, adding “a reasonable person would have known that acting in that way would create such risk. Their actions were so different from the way an ordinarily careful person would act in the same situation that their actions amounted to a disregard for human life.”
Almena allowed up to 20 people to live in the warehouse, violating the lease agreement, and when he did so, “it became his responsibility under the California Fire Code to install fire suppression systems such as automatic fire sprinklers, smoke alarms, exit signs, marked locations for fire extinguishers, and to create an evacuation plan,” prosecutors stated.
But Almena claims that the landlords were well aware that he and his family were living in the warehouse and it was their responsibility to let the city know, not his.
In addition, prosecutors say that Almena and Harris “altered the interior of the warehouse by building a makeshift bathroom, cutting a doorway into a wall, cutting a hole into the roof and opening a previously sealed window in a wall of the adjacent building. These alterations were all done without the permit and inspection process that is designed to insure the safety of people occupying the building and are violations of the Oakland Municipal code and California State Fire code.”
Almena countered in his interview that he made upgrades to the warehouse, which helped people escape from during the fire.
“If anything I made it safer,” he said. “I put in a back door and people escaped through the back door.”
Yet, witnesses told reporters and prosecutors that they warned Almena numerous times about the obvious fire hazard inside the warehouse
Finally, Almena was responsible for the construction of an “unsafe staircase” from the first floor to the second floor, the prosecutors state. Witnesses described these wooden stairs as dangerous and narrow, only allowing a group of people to travel up or down the stairs in a single file, and was in violation of city code.
On the night of the party, prosecutors charge Harris allegedly blocked off an area of the second floor that included a second stairwell, “which effectively reduced the upstairs guests to a single point of escape."
Almena specifically addressed the issue of that stairwell: That staircase, he said, was purchased from Home Depot and was one of the only internal structures still standing after the fire. He said it “was awesome. I saved lives by putting that staircase in.”
Life in jail, telling his side of the story
Since his arrest in June, Almena has been in a jail cell all by himself. He said he has lots of time to write, draw and dream – he sleeps about 18 to 20 hours a day.
He cried several times during the interview, especially when it came to talking about his three children, now living with their mother in Lake County. They escaped up north after the Ghost Ship, camping out for a while in tents on a horse ranch, he said. Allison found a job as a social worker, which is how she is paying the bills.
Wearing a red jail uniform and matching Crocs, Almena explained he knew he came off poorly in the days after the fire, in a Today Show interview with Matt Lauer and in a Facebook post he made about the safety of his own family, without seeming to have regard for those who died, hours after the fire. He swears he didn’t know how bad the fire was or that there was any loss of life until he arrived on scene the next day with his family.
He said he wanted to speak publicly now to tell his side of the story and change the narrative of this so-called “death trap.” He believes in his heart that he created a beautiful space that wasn’t as dangerous as “the media” described. And at first, he didn’t realize the fire’s devastation, and death toll. %INLINE%
The Ghost Ship reminded Almena of his father
Almena said he had worked hard to turn the Ghost Ship into something “beautiful, it was a dream.”
He had modeled the Ghost Ship space, and his life, after his father, he said, who was also an artist and photographer, and who was his role model.
The collective was supposed to be a “a place where the fringes of society” could come to play music, create art and become a community, he said. And yes, there was construction going on there, he said, but it was all to create an innovative living and creative space.
His father had his own space to live in the warehouse, he said. After his father's death, Almena said that returning to find food left out and cigarettes in the ashtrays brought home to stark reality of his father's absence. He said he felt the same sense of surreal loss after returning to the burned remains of the Ghost Ship after the fire to find the warehouse that his family and friends called home charred and unrecognizable.
The landlords "deceitful and greedy"
KTVU revealed last week that the building’s owner, Chor Ng, and her adult children, Eva and Kai, were notified about the various unsafe conditions and did nothing about them. Almena also told KTVU in the jailhouse interview that a transformer blew within the first two months of him moving into the warehouse and he had no power for two months and he refused to pay the $4,500-per-month rent during that time period. That’s why he said he had to jerry-rig electricity and even water into the warehouse, where he had been charging up to 20 tenants between $500 to $1,400-a-month in rent, court documents state.
He said he hired his own people to fix things up as best he could.
Kai Ng visited regularly, refused to help or fix anything and told Almena that he had rented the place “as is.”
The Ngs are “deceitful and greedy,” Almena said. “They definitely rented me something that was unsafe.”
KTVU has tried to speak to the Ngs, but they have refused. Their spokesman Sam Singer said he would check with the Ng family attorney to get a response. But as of deadline, no comment had been issued.
Teresa Drenick, spokeswoman for the Alameda County District Attorney, had no response to Almena’s jail interview and would not speak about whether the Ngs would, or would not, be charged. She cited the Nov. 13 preliminary hearing for Almena and Harris as the reason for her silence.
Almena wasn’t a saint
While the jailhouse interview didn’t touch on his brushes with the law, Almena did have his share of legal troubles, most of which were resolved without arrest.
For example, in 2014, Almena was cited for battery, but no charges came out of that. The next year, someone had gotten knocked down at the Ghost Ship in 2015, supposedly under Almena’s orders, according to a temporary restraining order, and the petitioner claimed Almena threatened he was “going to get his gun.” The restraining order, however was dismissed when the person didn’t show up in court. Almena himself sought a restraining order against a former tenant who reported him to Child Protective Services, over the living conditions he was living in with his children, but he eventually got his three kids back. In the jailhouse interview, he said the CPS people were great and threw him a party when he was reunited with his kids.
Also in 2015, Almena was arrested on suspicion of felony possession of stolen property at the warehouse. But according to records, Almena said he had the trailer for just a week. Almena spent two days in jail and agreed to plead no contest to a lesser misdemeanor charge of possessing stolen property. He was issued three years’ probation and was ordered to pay a restitution of $1,719.
Almena’s thoughts and dreams as he awaits trial
As for now, Almena is waiting for court proceedings to play out. And while he does, he has plenty of time to ponder his past and his future.
He thinks about the victims, and remembers the morning after the fire telling his children about what happened, describing one of the young men inside the party as “beautiful boy who died there.”
He dreams a lot – mostly about a vibrant Ghost Ship of yesteryear, where friends pick up trombones and plunk away at the 20 organs inside the warehouse. There was such a “buzz” inside the real Ghost Ship, Almena recalled fondly, a buzz that is etched in his pysche. He took a long pause after describing a massive, musical party with his friends, and then he said with a long sigh: "And then you gotta' wake up."
He listens to his cellmates, whom he described as “men who are trapped,” and he wishes he could be more productive, at least to be let out to teach those who don’t know how to read. He said he’d like to create a “higher consciousness” in his jail unit.
He looks forward with talking to his wife and children on the phone. The family only visited him for the first time last month. “No, I don’t get to hold them,” Almena said crying at one point during the interview.
But mostly, he said, he’s sad and lonely.
“It’s a dull miserable torture,” Almena said. “That’s where I am right now.