With the number of confirmed dead expected to surpass 36, the city of Oakland has launched a criminal probe into the cause of Friday night's tragic warehouse blaze. The LA Times reports that criminal investigators from the district attorney’s office are working with the Oakland Police Department and the sheriff’s arson task force in an effort to both determine what caused the blaze and to preserve any potential evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
“We have 36 families, not only grieving for their lost ones, but also they want to have answers and we as a city collectively are working to find those answers,” OPD spokesperson Johnna Watson told the paper. “We want to provide answers not only for the families, but for our community.”
The warehouse in question was an illegal live/work space that residents called the Ghost Ship, and was known to occasionally host, or be rented out for, parties like the one Friday night that was in progress when the blaze started around 11:32 p.m. ABC 7 reports that the building, which was not zoned for residential living, was the subject of numerous complaints from neighbors and others familiar with what has been described as the maze-like space. "We have documented it, we have turned it in, we have called it in," Oakland city councilmember Noel Gallo told the channel. "I have brought police personally to it to shut this place down and get them to remove that debris."
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf has ordered an investigation into the history of complaints involving the warehouse, which has apparently been in the hands of Derick Ion Almena and his wife Micah Allison for about a decade, with construction in the interior space intensifying possibly in the last several years. ABC 7 is reporting that a separate independent investigation will focus on how the city handled any complaints it received prior to the fire about the building or its tenants.
It remains to be seen if landlord Chor Ng could also be a focus of the investigations. She has owned the building since 1997, and owns 11 other buildings in Oakland.
With roughly 70 percent of the warehouse searched, investigators have yet to determine a cause of the fire. They believe the blaze may have begun in the back of the building, on the ground floor beneath the dancefloor, and officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are developing a plan for further searching the building and preserving evidence. At the same time, some former Ghost Ship residents and artists familiar with the space have begun to point fingers at the Almena, the building's master tenant. As SFist reported over the weekend, Almena had reportedly been warned by friends that the building was unsafe. “On several occasions [I] stood in front of the building and said 'Derek this is not safe, your kids are in danger,' and his attitude was that I was being hysterical,” former friend and neighbor Danielle Boudreaux told CBS 5. Boudreaux and other concerned parents familiar with the family were responsible for reporting Almena and Allison to Child Protective Services, who removed their three children from the warehouse due to unsafe conditions, though it appears they had returned after a period of months.
Various news sources have also noted that Almena had an arrest record, with an arrest for unknown charges in Los Angeles, and a plea deal involving a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property in January 2015, for which he remains on probation.
With officials alleging that roughly 200 Oakland warehouses have fire-code violations, the ramifications of this blaze will likely be widespread and have implications beyond the tragic loss of life.