OAKLAND (KRON) – Defendant Derick Almena served as the master tenant of the Ghost Ship warehouse.
Since the beginning, Almena has defended himself saying he’s a scapegoat for what happened.
Almena says there were more than 20 pianos, 30 organs, statues from India and Bali, decorations, musical instruments and furniture in the Ghost Ship Warehouse in Oakland prior to the deadly fire in 2016.
He moved into the space with his wife and three children back in 2013.
The 10,000 square foot warehouse in the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland became their new home.
Almena, and his wife Micah, advertised the building on Craigslist for potential renters as a hybrid museum, sunken pirate ship, a shingled fun house and a 24 hour creation space.
Over time, Almena and others transformed the warehouse into a place for artists to not just work but to live.
Previous tenants say up to 25 people lived inside, paying a couple hundred dollars a month to rent out a studio or an rv trailer.
While some describe it as safe and beautiful, others called it unsafe, a death trap and a terrifying fire hazard.
In a jailhouse interview with KRON4 in 2017, Almena said his lease gave him the right to build rooms in the warehouse and to have people over.
He said, with the owners consent, he built residences and the landlord would come by every month to check on what he was doing.
Almena called the warehouse a safe space and a place where everyone contributed to the community inside.
He said contractors came by to make sure construction was being done correctly.
He said since the beginning of the Ghost Ship in 2013, he had a relationship with police officers and firefighters — several of them came inside and told him how great the warehouse looked and told him he was doing a great job.
But in 2015, Almena’s three children were removed from the Ghost Ship.
Alameda County Child Protective Services sent the children to their grandparents home for six months.
Twice a week, Almena and his wife were drug tested.
Eventually, the children were brought back to the warehouse.
Almena moved his family to a hotel on the night of Dec. 2, 2016, wanting his kids to have a good night sleep and not be disturbed by the electronic music party set to take place.
Hours after arriving at the hotel, Almena was notified that the warehouse was on fire and that one of the people who lived there had died and dozens more were trapped on the second floor.
“I’m a father of three children, I would never want this to happen,” Almena said. “I wish I couldve been there to save your children, to be there to guide them out of that but it wasn’t a horrible place that they were in. They were in a really wonderful place with amazing artists.”
In the jailhouse interview, Almena says he takes a moral responsibility for the fire and wishes he was there to have saved people.
Thirty-six partygoers were unable to get out alive.
Almena and another tenant, Max Harris, described as the creative director of the warehouse, were charged with involuntary manslaughter for the people who died during the party.
They’ve been locked up in protective custody in the Santa Rita Jail since their arrests months after the deadly fire.
Almena was defensive and came off frustrated and angry during his interview with KRON4.
“Of course I’m being scapegoated,” he said.
Almena is accused of illegally converting the Ghost Ship into an artist live work space.
The Ghost Ship warehouse trial began in the spring of this year and prosecutors argued Almena and Harris were criminally negligent by filling the warehouse with flammable materials and failing to install safety equipment.
“If you are going to hold me responsible, then I want FD, P, the landlords, my kids school teachers that had parties in my space that knew we were living there and came to hang out and one of the school teachers husbands was a fireman and was like great space man this is awesome,” Almena said.
“My guy is just a common Joe. He doesn’t know everything that is in a fire code,” said Almena’s attorney, Tony Serra.
The cause of the fire is undetermined.
Almena’s attorney argues the fire was started by arsonists.
“We very strongly believe this was an arson fire,” Serra said.
A brother of one of the victims of the fire believes Almena and Harris are guilty.
“They created the environment. They managed the environment,” Chris Allen said. “They invited others into that environment. They took money for others to live in that environment and attend that environment and that’s what it comes down to for us.”
But some witnesses don’t believe Almena should be held responsible.
“That young witness started crying on the stand because he saw his good friends charged in this criminal case,” Serra said.
Almena has worn a suit to court everyday of the trial.
He sits quiet, often writing during testimony and rarely, if ever, making eye contact with the jurors.
He tells KRON4 what keeps him going is his love for his children, his honor and knowing what he did to the Ghost Ship warehouse was beautiful.
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