"I'm only here to say one thing: I'm incredibly sorry and that everything that I did was to make this a stronger and more beautiful community and to bring people together."
That wasn't the only thing that Derick Ion Almena, the 46-year-old manager of the Oakland warehouse known as the Ghost Ship, told the Today show this morning. He also defended himself and sidestepped any potential blame for Friday's fire at the space which killed at least 36 people, perhaps as he feared criminal charges that could well be on the way.
"People didn’t walk through those doors because it was a horrible place," Almena said. "I didn’t do anything ever in my life that would lead me up to this moment. I’m an honorable man. I’m a proud man.”
Almena has been widely and publicly shamed after he posted a Facebook status bemoaning the loss of his property, which he now says was because he was unaware at the time of the loss of life. He rented the space known as Ghost Ship and also sometimes called Satya Yuga from landlord Chor Ng, and he was allegedly responsible for the buildout of the elaborate, mostly wood-constructed interior, including the second floor "rave cave" as it was known, which was connected by a rickety stairway structure created from wooden pallets. His subtenants were reportedly instructed to hide their bedding or other signs that they lived there if they were ever inspected in order to maintain the image of the space as a 24-hour artists' work space: The building was permitted for industrial, not residential, use.
Confronted with questions from Today's Matt Lauer, a tense and seemingly confused Almena was evasive. "I’m not going to answer these questions on this level. I’d rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents. I’d rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions. I’m so sorry, I’m incredibly sorry," Almena said.
Last year, a neighbor and former friend of Almena's whose children have attended school with Almena's three children, Danielle Boudreaux, alerted Child Protective Services and the children's grandparents regarding their living conditions they were also found to have lice and to have been poorly clothed and they were removed by the agency to their grandparents' home in early 2015 but returned to Almena in July 2015. "The police and Fire Department were there on more than one occasion," Boudreaux told the Chronicle. "Multiple people warned Derick that it was a death trap. He would laugh it off. This tragedy could have been avoided if it were not for his arrogance."
The Associated Press spoke with the father of Almena's wife/partner Micah Allison, and his portrait of Almena is deeply damning. “Honestly, I don’t think he is capable of feeling any kind of remorse or guilt,” Michael Allison of Portland, Oregon said. “I’ve never seen him ever really care about anyone else... He was able to cast a spell on someone in a weird way that I just do not understand." Methamphetamine, crack, and heroin use were also mentioned by the father-in-law, and Almena had spoken of "peeing in a cup" regularly for drug tests while the children were away.
Boudreaux also spoke with the AP to tell them that Almena “surrounds himself with people who are going to treat him like he’s some sort of guru... He enjoyed having minions around to do his tasks for him and help build this great — he thinks he’s building this artistic empire.”
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley told the Chronicle yesterday that she would have her investigators look into possible criminal charges including murder and involuntary manslaughter but added that it was “too early to speculate” regarding criminal prosecution.
While murder convictions for property owners or managers are rare, Robert Weisberg, a Stanford law professor and co-director of the school’s Criminal Justice Center, told the Chronicle that "it’s not inconceivable that this could be a murder case.”
In the past, Almena was arrested for unknown charges in Los Angeles and and took a plea deal in a case involving a misdemeanor charge of accepting stolen property in January 2015 for which he is still on probation.