Leaseholder says Almena laughed off concerns about Ghost Ship warehouse

A leaseholder for the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale district where 36 people perished in a fire last year testified today that master tenant Derick Almena laughed him off when he told him that the building should be brought up to code.

On the witness stand in the second day of the preliminary hearing for Almena, 47, and Ghost Ship creative director Max Harris, 27, Nicholas Bouchard said that several weeks after he and Almena signed a lease for the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. on Nov. 10, 2013, he called a meeting to address his concern that there were electrical problems and there was no running water at the building.

Bouchard, 25, said he invited his mother to the meeting, which was held at the Public Market in Emeryville, because of her expertise as a paralegal and an executive producer but Almena showed up two hours late, "scoffed at my mom" and turned his attention to his computer so he could look 
at a social media site.

Bouchard said, "We wanted to talk about putting in plumbing, doing electrical work for after-school programs" but he said Almena displayed "a lack of interest."

Bouchard said he hired a lawyer to try to remove his name from the warehouse's lease after the unsuccessful meeting but building owner Chor Ng wouldn't let him do so.

Bouchard said he moved out of the warehouse in late 2013 after he had a falling out with Almena.

He said that when he visited the warehouse in August 2016 he didn't see any sprinklers, exit signs or fire alarms there.

A fire that broke out at the warehouse during a music party on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, claimed the lives of 36 people.

Almena and Harris, who are in custody in lieu of $750,000 bail, are charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire.

The purpose of their preliminary hearing, which will resume on Monday and is expected to conclude on Wednesday, is to determine if there's enough evidence for them to stand trial.

Prosecutors allege that the warehouse violated several rules under the California Fire Code, such as adequate, fire-suppression systems, smoke alarms, exit signs and sprinklers.

Prosecutors also allege that Almena fostered an environment in which highly flammable materials were allowed and that Almena and Harris remodeled the warehouse without going through proper inspection and permitting procedures.

At a bail hearing in August, prosecutor Autrey James argued against allowing Almena to be released from custody on his own recognizance, saying he was concerned about the safety of prosecution witnesses with whom Almena has clashed in the past, including Bouchard.

On the witness stand today, Bouchard said that after he had his falling out with Almena in late 2013, "For my safety I had to leave the country" for about a month.

When Tony Serra, one of Almena's lawyers, asked him why he and Almena had a falling out, Bouchard said, "For weeks and months Derick had been horribly using speed and changing his behavior quite rapidly."

Bouchard said his reasons for breaking off his friendship with Almena "were not only logistical and practical but also emotional."

Earlier today, Jose Avalos, a woodworker who moved into the warehouse two years before the deadly blaze, said there were frequent power outages there.

Avalos said, "There was a long period when we didn't have steady power. There were times it (power outages) happened day after day."

Avalos also testified that residents had called Oakland police to the Ghost Ship two or three times in the two years he lived there to help evict residents who had failed to pay their rent.

Another former tenant, Leah "Swan" Vega, said that the artist collective space was not an appropriate living accommodation.

Vega said, "The building was not intended for humans. It was like a stone hut or something to keep your head dry. There was no business renting a place like that."

Referring to the fire, Vega said, "It's important that this never happens again. I need to know my friends will never go through this again."