The leader of the Ghost Ship artist collective housed in an Oakland, Calif., warehouse has come under intense scrutiny since a massive blaze engulfed the building, killing three dozen people.
But Derick Ion Almena’s defense team, led by a prominent San Francisco lawyer, released a report Monday saying the fire did not start inside the Ghost Ship warehouse — but rather in an adjacent building. Almena’s attorneys said in a news release that their findings could rule out the possibility of criminal negligence charges against their client.
Fire department officials said earlier that the fire started at the back of the warehouse, though the cause remains unknown.
But the defense team has its own theory, detailed in a report that was released nearly two months after the Dec. 2 fire.
According to Almena’s defense team’s investigation, the fire could not have started inside Ghost Ship because the electric power distribution to the warehouse originated from the adjacent building. The attorneys declined to name the expert who came up with the findings and only said that that person is “qualified by both education and experience.”
Authorities said it started at about 11:30 p.m. on a Saturday night, when more than 50 people had gathered on the second floor of the warehouse for a concert. Thirty-six people died, many of them in their 20s and 30s.
Teresa Drenick, a spokeswoman for the Alameda County district attorney’s office, said she could not comment on the findings of Almena’s attorneys.
“We are in the midst of our investigation and have three attorneys and three inspectors working on it,” she said in an email to The Washington Post.
Almena’s defense team is led by J. Tony Serra, whose high-profile clients include Black Panthers founder Huey Newton and the Hells Angels, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The building, owned by Chor Ng, was leased by Almena and his wife, who managed the space and turned it into an art gallery and concert venue. Artists were allowed to live there for a small fee, even though the building was not permitted for residential use.
Some described Ghost Ship as a refuge for struggling artists alienated by the Bay Area’s ever-rising housing prices. But others saw it as a death trap littered with wires, cords and transformers. Inside was a labyrinth of antique furniture, artwork, wooden lofts, tapestries and other oddities. A makeshift staircase made of wooden pallets led to the second floor.
Records show that city officials were aware of possible code violations as early as November. Complaints filed with the city alleged blight around the building and illegal construction and residential use inside. A city inspector visited the warehouse not long before the fire to document the blight outside, but was unable to go in. An investigation into possible illegal housing was still pending when the fire happened.
Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley told reporters earlier that criminal charges, including murder or involuntary manslaughter, are possible. Many blamed Almena, but his defense attorneys said that he was simply a “scapegoat” for city officials’ own failure to prevent the fire from happening.
“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,” according to a December news release from Almena’s attorneys.
Three of the 36 victims were foreigners from Finland, Korea and Guatemala. The youngest was a 17-year-old whose name was not released.
The death toll makes the Oakland fire one of the deadliest in recent U.S. history and the deadliest structure fire in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Almena told a local NBC affiliate that he’s heartbroken over the deaths.
“They’re my children,” he said. “They’re my friends, they’re my family, they’re my loves, they’re my future. What else do I have to say.”
Ng, who owns the building located on 31st Avenue near one of East Oakland’s major thoroughfares, has hired a Southern-California lawyer Keith Bremer to represent her.