The Ghost Ship disaster in Oakland last year was the worst fire in modern California history, killing 36 people.
Alameda County prosecutors on Monday accused two men of recklessly creating a fire trap at the illegally converted warehouse, justifying charges of involuntary manslaughter.
Here’s a breakdown of what we know:
WHAT DO PROSECUTORS SAY HAPPENED?
Creating a deadly ‘labyrinth’
Derick Ion Almena, 47, the property manager who converted the warehouse into an artists residence and underground concert venue known as the Ghost Ship, and Max Harris, who served as the venue’s “creative director” and ran the concert that took place on the night of the blaze, were arrested Monday and charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, according to Alameda County Dist. Atty. Nancy E. O’Malley.
Almena and Harris allowed as many as 25 people to illegally reside in the warehouse, failed to provide any fire suppression equipment and filled the building with flammable materials from “floor-to-ceiling,” creating a deadly “labyrinth” from which the victims had little chance to escape, according to a probable cause statement filed Monday.
On the night of the fire, Harris rented the upstairs portion of the warehouse to a promoter and was on the premises to oversee the event. During preparation for the electronic dance show, Harris allegedly blocked off a second stairwell that had served as an exit, leaving guests only one way out when flames began to devour the building.
Who is Derick Ion Almena?
Controversial ‘captain’ of the Ghost Ship
Almena ran the warehouse as a physical extension of himself and was the master tenant.
Many who knew him described him as a narcissist and an opportunist. They said he deftly manipulated those around him, including his longtime partner Micah Allison, 41, who lived with him and their three children on the warehouse’s second floor.
“He is able to charm people, but when they don’t go along with what he wants he will threaten people,” said Allison’s father, Michael Allison.
Almena has a prior conviction for receiving stolen property — an Airstream trailer from his landlord in January 2015, court records show. He spent two days in jail before pleading no contest to a misdemeanor, and is currently on probation until 2019.
Others describe him as eccentric, a “crazy uncle,” who leased the warehouse and sublet it to musicians and artists who couldn’t afford, or didn’t want, a more conventional living space.
“He has kind of childlike characteristics,” said Libby Physh, who lived in the warehouse for about five months in 2014, paying $500 a month for one of the half-dozen trailers parked on the Ghost Ship’s ground floor.
Almena had informed the building owner that electricity to the arts collective and adjoining businesses within the block of buildings were “in dire need of a total and immediate upgrade.”
In the wake of the deadly blaze, Almena repeatedly expressed sorrow for the 36 lives lost in the fire.
“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,” he told NBC in the aftermath. “People didn’t walk through those doors because it was a horrible place. People didn’t seek us out to perform and express themselves because it was a horrible place.”
When asked if he was accountable, he said: “No, 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…”
Almena’s legal battles with some tenants and partygoers who visited the Ghost Ship are well documented, but little is known about his life before he popped up in Oakland’s underground art scene.
Michael Allison said his daughter and Almena both grew up in Southern California and have lived together as wanderers, organizing their lives around Burning Man and other festivals. They had an apartment for a time near MacArthur Park in Los Angeles, where Almena pursued photography and Allison belly danced.
In the early 2000s, when Allison became pregnant with the couple’s first child, they decamped for Mendocino County, where they stayed with one of Almena’s relatives.
Michael Allison said Almena worked as a marijuana grower, and that he mainly farmed out tasks to other people and didn’t always pay them.
By 2013, Almena and Allison had decided to make the warehouse their home. On her Facebook page, Allison called herself the Mother Superior of their artist colony, the Satya Yuga Collective.
The couple advertised the building on Craigslist as a “hybrid museum, sunken pirate ship, shingled funhouse, and guerrilla gallery.”
Mariah Benavides, who babysat for the couple’s kids occasionally starting in 2012, said she recalled instances in which Almena and Allison left her alone with the children for days at a time while they hosted parties at different venues, including a warehouse called Cloud 9.
In 2015, Alameda County Child Protective Services temporarily took away Almena and Allison’s children. On her Facebook page, Allison chronicled the steps she and Almena took to convince officials of their parental fitness. They were taking parenting, anger management and domestic violence classes.
Twice a week their urine was tested for drugs, Allison wrote, adding, “We have never tested dirty whatsoever.” Earlier this year, the couple regained custody of their children, an outcome that left some of their relatives flummoxed, Michael Allison said.
“I didn’t do anything ever in my life that would lead me up to this moment,” he said.
His lawyers have long argued that charging him is a way to avoid Oakland’s neglect of building oversight.
“It is our fear that improper charges could be brought against Derick and others by Alameda County in order to divert attention away from their own irresponsible agencies,” the lawyers said. “It is our intention, if the need arises, to defend vigorously by showing that the real culprits are the above agencies who didn’t do their jobs.”
Almena is being represented attorneys J. Tony Serra, Jeffrey Krasnoff and Kyndra Miller. Serra, a firebrand attorney legendary for his defense of the Black Panthers, former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson and Hells Angels leader George Christie, said government agencies fear massive payouts as a result of civil litigation.
Who is Max harris?
Ran the Ghost Ship the night of deadly fire
Max Harris, who also goes by Max Ohr, is a tattoo artist and the creative director of the artist collective. Nicknamed “Warlord” Harris, he was the manager and doorman on the night of the deadly event.
He lived in the Ghost Ship and was the person in charge at the time of the deadly blaze because Almena had gone to a hotel with his family for the night.
Harris told the East Bay Times that he reported electrical problems to the building’s owners and about power outages and the need for upgrades.
Four weeks after the fire, soliciting donations as a victim of the fire, Harris turned to Facebook for help:
“In no way do I mean to take away from the tragedy and loss by seeking to get back on my feet and heal,” he wrote Dec. 28, asking for aid and support, including possibly creating another artist residence.
“I am still currently homeless, mostly couch-surfing, continuing to explore my potential directions, and awaiting resources while trying to acquire the art-tools necessary for sustainability and advancement. I am now leaning towards rebuilding a smaller community-split-studio or perhaps just an individual realm…
“I will be beginning to tattoo again shortly, and hope to utilize this as a partial vehicle as I scout out a new place to make nest…”