The trial-by-media for Ghost Ship proprietor Derick Almena predictably continues, now seven weeks since the deadly blaze tore through the live-work warehouse he designed and managed and took the lives of 36 people. The latest salvo from Almena's attorneys is a 10-page report by an independent investigator which suggests that the fire originated in the neighboring building from which the Ghost Ship got all of its electrical power, via a hole punched in the wall. Per the East Bay Times, attorneys Jeffrey Krasnoff, Kyndra Miller, and Tony Serra wrote in a statement that they believe their new evidence "should reasonably foreclose any criminal negligence charges against Mr. Almena," adding that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms was unable to reach a definitive conclusion about the fire's point of origin.
The defense team's report was prepared by a so-far anonymous expert, via a January 15 examination of the damaged properties. The reports utilizes photos of the properties, including one showing damage along the rear roofline of the adjacent building, and concludes "there must have been enough heat PRIOR TO the entry into Ghost Ship section for fire to occur."
An alternate theory presented in the report is that PG&E could be to blame for providing "undersized wiring" servicing the two buildings, which could lead to overloaded wiring that could lead to fire. The East Bay Times speaks to their own fire investigator, Dan Rapperport of Rapperport Associates, who says that the evidence for the fire originating next door is not compelling, but he says the point about the PG&E wiring could be valid. The problem is that it's typically up to the customer, and not PG&E, to observe when they have insufficient or "legacy" wiring and to request more power.
The ATF did not comment on the new report and said that the Oakland Fire Department's official report is still forthcoming. City of Oakland Communications Director Karen Boyd issued a statement Monday saying that the report, a collaborative effort of the ATF and OFD, "will yield a report that addresses the cause and origin of the fire. That report will be forwarded to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office as part of the ongoing criminal investigation."
In December, shortly after Almena's defense team was announced, and prior to any criminal charges being filed, Serra issued a statement seizing on the ATF's lack of a definitive conclusion as to the fire's source, and saying that Almena "shouldn't be made a scapegoat" for the negligence of city agencies.
An attorney for the families of two of the fire's victims, Mary Alexander, issued a statement to KRON 4 in response to the new report saying, "Wherever the fire started, and I’m not saying it was next door, the people couldn’t get out and it’s because of [Almena] building this makeshift second floor [and] makeshift stairs,” said attorney Mary Alexander. “They couldn’t find a way out. [There were] no sprinklers, exit signs, light for exits. [There was] only one way out that [the victims] could find and then it’s a maze to get out.”
Also on Monday, Almena's longtime partner Micah Allison spoke at a special meeting of the Oakland City Council aimed at addressing possible tenant protections and a moratorium on evictions in the wake of the deadly fire. Though she offered an apology to victims' families and said "I wish that more had been done before, because we carry a really heavy weight on our shoulders right now," according to the East Bay Times she "spent the majority of her time at the podium decrying the treatment she said her family has received from the media and former neighbors."
In a fairly tone-deaf and self-pitying move, she railed against media reports about her family as "pretty terrible," and went on to explain that she and Almena had recently tried to move back in to a house they had previously occupied with their kids, but were shunned via some former neighbors whom she had once considered friends. She says that when they got word that she and Almena were trying to return to the house, "because our landlord really loved us and wanted to help our family," these neighbors "contacted the landlord and said that if they let us move back into the house that they would cause a lot of trouble for him over his house."
Allison apparently wanted to appeal to the city council's sympathies about the fact that she and Almena remain homeless, and that she's still looking for a place to live so that she can keep her three kids in their Fruitvale-neighborhood schools.