Derick Almena and Max Harris were arrested Monday on 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, police citing their roles as leaseholder and “creative director” of the “Ghost Ship”–an artist’s space that went up in flames last December, killing 36 people. If convicted, they each face up to 39 years in prison.
The “Ghost Ship” was a warehouse that was illegally converted into an artist’s collective and living space. The building was not zoned for residential living or for any purpose involving arts and entertainment. It was instead meant to function solely as a warehouse and for storage. The building had been on Oakland authorities’ radar for over two decades because of various complaints, including noise from parties and the fact that the property was messy. Although some neighbors complained, others did not know that people lived in the warehouse.
Photos from inside the Ghost Ship taken before the fire show a veritable tinder box. The Ghost Ship was crammed with trinkets, blankets, and knick-knacks that all went up in flames on December 2, the night of the fire. Residents of the two-story building had been preparing for a party later in the evening, and had blocked off one stairwell between the first and second floors.
The fire broke out on the first floor and grew for some time before the people above it realized what was happening. Smoke traveled up and trapped the party-goers. Those who tried to get out had only one escape route, and it led back down to the fire. The Oakland District Attorney Nancy O’Malley described the people caught in the blaze as trying to navigate “a nearly impossible labyrinth” on their way out of the building.
In the end, 36 people died and it took four hours to extinguish the fire. Investigators say they will never be able to determine what exactly caused the fire because the blaze destroyed everything.
Derick Almena and Max Harris’s arrest will bring some consolation to the families of the victims, who have brought wrongful death lawsuits against the property owner, Almena (who was the leaseholder), and Pacific Gas & Electric.
Almena rented the space out to artists, and allowed Harris to live there in exchange for collecting rent from other tenants, mediating disputes, and acting as a go-between for himself and the property owner. District attorney Nancy O’Malley says her office will pursue Almena and Harris on the charges of acting with gross or reckless disregard for human life.
By conducting electrical and construction work without permits, allowing people to live in a space that was not zoned for it, and deliberately deceiving authorities and the property owner Almena and Harris created “a deadly and dangerous space.”
Almena, at least, is no stranger to controversial run-ins with the law. Reports from Child Protective Services paint a grim picture of the man as a drug addict unable to care for others. In the most shocking report, CPS details that Almena’s three-year-old was found chewing on a used condom the morning after a “sex party” held on the second floor of the Ghost Ship.
Relatives took the children away from Almena and his wife, Micah Allison, while Almena had a stint in rehab. He did not complete rehab but managed to regain custody of the children. Babysitters, family members, and acquaintances described the children as living in extreme neglect and as the warehouse environment as one that was profoundly unsafe, and functioned mainly as a space for drugs and partying.
Almena’s father-in-law cried as he told The Daily Mail how worried he was about his grandchildren. He blamed Almena for the tragedy of the Ghost Ship fire.
“He needs to be sent away to prison for a long time because he’s a menace, he’s an absolute menace, he’s a plague. A danger. He’s crazy, I mean the guy’s completely crazy.”
[Featured Image by Lake County PD/AP Images]