Witness says Almena laughed at Ghost Ship safety issues

A construction trades worker who once was a close friend of Ghost Ship warehouse master tenant Derick Almena testified on Tuesday that Almena scoffed at him when he told Almena that the building in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood was unsafe.

Rodney Griffin said when he told Almena in 2014 that he thought the warehouse, which also was called the Satya Yuga Collective, was a death trap, Almena laughed and said, "Ha, ha, we should called it the 'Satya Yuga death trap.'"

Griffin took the witness stand on the second day of testimony in the trial of Derick Almena, 49, and creative director Max Harris, 29, on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter for the fire during a music party at the warehouse at 1309 31st Ave. late on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, that killed 36 people.

Alameda County prosecutor Casey Bates alleged in his opening statement last week that Almena and Harris are criminally liable for the fire because there was no time and no way for the people at the party to escape since the warehouse didn't have important safeguards, such as fire extinguishers, smoke alarms and exit signs.

Bates also said Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse's lease, which Almena signed on Nov. 10, 2013, by turning it into a living space and hosting underground music parties there.

But Harris's attorney Curtis Briggs and Almena's lawyer Tony Serra alleged in their opening statements that the fire was an act of arson that Harris and Almena couldn't have prevented.

Griffin said he has known Almena since 2010, lived with Almena and his family for a time and "considered him to be my brother" but later their relationship soured because of what he said was "a difference of opinion."

Griffin said he first saw the warehouse around the time that Almena signed the lease when it was empty but when he visited it again six months later in 2014 it was filled with artwork, tapestries, rugs, statues, 
pianos, organs, RV's that were used as living spaces and "everything under the sun."

Griffin said, "As much as it was a creative outlet it was very dangerous."

Griffin also said it was very difficult to maneuver" inside the building because the layout was "confusing" and it wasn't clear where the exit was located.

Griffin said Almena asked him to do a rough calculation of the cost of bringing the warehouse up to code so he estimated that it would cost $10,000 to do electrical repairs, $2,000 to install fire doors and $3,000 to put in stairs.

But he said Almena responded that he could find a way of doing all that work for less money.

Griffin said he became especially concerned about the safety at the warehouse after it was "fire-bombed" in an arson in September 2014 so he went to an Oakland Fire Department station located only a block away.

Griffin said the chief of the station told him he "was aware" of the conditions at the warehouse but he doesn't think the chief took his concerns seriously.

Griffin said, "It seemed to be brushed off" and described the station's chief's attitude as "nonchalant."