Derick Almena, who also goes by the name Derick Ion, was arrested and taken into custody in Lake County, California on Monday in connection with the December 2, 2016 warehouse fire in Oakland that claimed the lives of 36 people. As the East Bay Times reports, Almena is being charged along with one of his sub-tenants the space, Max Harris, a.k.a. Max Ohr, who was arrested in Los Angeles. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley announced at a press conference Monday that both men had been booked and charge (more details on her statement are below). The New York Times reports, via the father of one of the fire victims, that he'd already been informed the pair were being charged with 36 counts of manslaughter.
O'Malley did not discuss any charges against the landlord of the building, Chor Ng, but Mike Madden, the father of fire victim Griffin Madden, tells the Times, "Our hope is that this aggressive approach continues including pursuing charges against her."
ABC 7 reports that Almena and his wife Micah Allison have been living in a new home in Lake County with their three children, and that he was arrested there early Monday morning.
Almena ran the collective that went by the name Satya Yuga and subleased spaces to about a dozen artists in the un-permitted live-work and event space in Oakland's Fruitvale district, and he came under scrutiny and received criticism immediately after the deadly blaze as multiple accounts suggested that it was his negligence in constructing the interior spaces and his open defiance of building and safety codes that were to blame for the deaths of party-goers who were unable to escape the building.
Just two weeks ago, the East Bay Times reported on body camera footage they obtained from the Oakland Police Department that showed an 11-minute conversation Almena had with two officers following an apparent arson incident involving a couch on the sidewalk outside the Ghost Ship property, shot on September 26, 2014, about eight months after Almena had moved himself and his family into the space and began building it out. In the video, Almena and another unidentified tenant can be heard talking about the work they were doing all night inside to prepare for a "benefit" event that day. Almena lies about residing elsewhere, giving the officers a bogus home address, and brags about the collective he's created inside, and the "40 organs, 20 antique player pianos; the amount of antiques I go to India and Bali and I bring back old houses and door fronts." He also talks about constructing things out of scrap wood which should have been a red flag for police, who did not look inside saying, "I take things that people normally discard. You know, pallets and wood and stuff, and I build out of them." Wood pallets, as we learned shortly after the fire, were used to construct a rickety staircase to the space's second floor, where most of the victims perished.
It's unclear whether this video in any way influenced the investigation by the DA's office, and talk of possible criminal charges in the case were mentioned by O'Malley as early as mid-December.
The investigation has also brought up the potential for charges against the landlord, Chor Ng, and her two children who managed the property on her behalf. Within a couple of months of Almena signing the lease with Ng in late 2013, a second person on the original lease, Nicholas Bouchard, had an apparent falling out with Almena and wrote a letter telling the landlords that he wanted to be taken off the lease because Almena had already been making un-approved alterations to the interior of the space. The Ngs have maintained that they were unaware that anyone was residing in the building.
Almena's attorneys, led by veteran local defense attorney Tony Serra, have sought to suggest that the landlords were aware that the building had insufficient electric infrastructure, and the source of the fire is believed to have been overloaded electrical cables at the rear of the structure. As of last month, families of the fire victims filed suit against PG&E alleging that the utility should have been aware that the building was drawing far more electricity than it was wired for.
SFist will update this post as soon as the DA's press conference concludes.
Update: DA Nancy O'Malley said in the press conference that she had been meeting with her investigative team throughout the six months of the investigation, and that they spent a great deal of energy analyzing the prosecutable evidence they had against Almena and Harris. She said the team had conducted over 75 witness interviews, executed dozens of search warrants, and pored over reams of documentation pertaining to the case before reaching today's charges.
"To prosecute a manslaughter case [like this]... we must prove that the defendant acted with gross negligence," O'Malley said. "Almena and Harris acted knowingly and with disregard for risk when the did the following: they allowed individuals to live in the building and conspired to deceive police, inspectors, and the landlord to conceal this fact. [Also] they allowed large groups to assemble for unpermitted and unsafe musical events in the space, and on December 2 in particular, they blocked one of the points of egress, leaving only one way to exit the second floor.... they also conducted unpermitted construction... and allowed for the storage of floor-to-ceiling [piles] of flammable materials... Their actions amount to disregard for human life. Their reckless acts were the proximate cause of the deaths of 36 individuals."
Deputy District Attorney Teresa Drenick further said, in response to questions about any other individuals who were investigated for possible charges, "We left no stone unturned in the evidence... and [we did] extensive legal analysis as to who could be charged... and this is the conclusion we came to."
Drenick confirmed that Almena is being booked into a jail in Lake County, and Harris in Los Angeles County, and it's so far not known when they will be arraigned in Alameda County.