The East Bay Times remains on the case of the Ghost Ship tragedy their coverage of which recently won them a Pulitzer Prize and today they have an exclusive look at the lease that was signed in late 2013 between landlord Eva Ng and lessees Derick Almena and Nicholas Bouchard, the latter of whom apparently soon had a falling out with Almena and tried to wash his hands of the lease. The Ng family has repeatedly said that they were unaware that anyone was living at the East Oakland warehouse, however email exchanges between Eva Ng and Bouchard from early 2014 might suggest otherwise.
Per the East Bay Times, the five-year lease was signed on November 10, 2013, and it stated, "The [warehouse is] for the sole use as an art collective, to build and create theatrical sets and offer workshops for community outreach. No other use is permitted without Landlord’s prior written consent.” But within two months, Bouchard would be emailing Ng asking to be removed from the lease, and alerting her to the fact that Almena was making unapproved alterations to the building, including cutting a hole in the floor. "I had every intention to create the space, but for reasons previously stated I can no longer be involved with Derick Ion Almena," Bouchard wrote on January 18, 2014. Ng repeatedly warned Bouchard that he was still liable for the lease, threatening severe financial penalties if he tried to withdraw it seems apparent from Ng's reaction that, in this equation, Bouchard was the person with a better credit history than Almena, though that is not confirmed.
Also, as the East Bay Times suggests, any use besides a warehouse would have required a conditional use permit.
Bouchard told Ng that January, "I think you should exercise whatever remedies you have to immediately take possession of the property to prevent further damage," but obviously the Ngs did not take any action against Almena, who could continue to pay the monthly $4,500 in rent for the space until the fire struck in December 2016.
Photos and descriptions showed the ultimate, shoddily constructed, makeshift party space and dwelling that took shape in the two years that Almena was in charge of it and earlier reports like this one in the LA Times quote former residents of the Ghost Ship like 31-year-old Jay Marsh, who describes the chaos of living there for several months staring in August 2014. "[Marsh said] Parties were frequent. Guests and hosts often were severely intoxicated. Untended cigarettes burned next to piles of old, dry wood." And "on one occasion he witnessed warehouse residents working on the building while under the influence of drugs, including methamphetamine. Hammers pounded on wood for three days without relent." Marsh also described being concerned for the safety of Almena's small children that he had with Micah Allison, saying that he would come home to find the three- and five-year-old wandering unsupervised while adults were taking drugs, and "There was wood with nails sticking out all over the place, it was like a construction site."
Ultimately the courts will have to decide whether more of the blame falls to the landlord for ignoring the safety hazards and electrical issues in the building, or whether Almena deserves some of the blame for the illegal structures he built inside. A legal expert, criminal defense attorney Dan Horowitz, tells the East Bay Times, that the issue of whether or not the Ng's knowingly allowed people to live there full time is beside the point. "[Those 36 people] died because there were few fire exits, blockades everywhere, deficient electric, no sprinklers. It was a death trap if it was used as a fish market, a bungee jumping warehouse or anything else. NO ONE should have been allowed in that place."
As we learned last month, the electrical issues at the property dated back at least two years before the fire, and multiple tenants including Almena had tried to alert the Ngs to the issues and make them pay for upgrades. A February 2015 email from Almena to Kai Ng talked about "ancient and violated lines of distribution" that were in "dire need" of upgrades, and Ng responded, "The lack of electrical infrastructure was made very clear before your lease began." Indeed, as the lease shows, tenants were given responsibility for making "necessary repairs," including electrical, however Horowitz says that while costs can be transferred in a lease, basic safety issues ultimately lie with the property owner.