Support Hyperallergic’s independent arts journalism.
On Monday, the property manager and creative director of Oakland’s Ghost Ship artist residence and DIY concert venue were arrested and charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, the Mercury Times reported.
Derick Ion Almena had been the warehouse’s master tenant and oversaw its conversion into an art space and concert venue. Max Harris was in charge of programming at the space and had organized the concert on December 2, 2016, during which a fire broke out, killing 36 people. If convicted, each faces up to 39 years in prison. In addition to the charges brought this week by the office of Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, Almena and Harris are also defendants in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the fire’s victims.
“Defendants Almena and Harris knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape, filled it with human beings, and are now facing the consequences of their deadly actions,” O’Malley said in a statement. “My Office launched this criminal investigation within hours of the fire, and we have worked steadily for the past six months to ensure that those responsible for these deaths are brought to justice.”
The prosecutors would not say whether any others will face charges as part of the investigation, but many friends and family members of victims have called for charges to be brought against the warehouse’s owner, Chor Ng, and her son, Kai Ng. “The paper trail makes it very clear that they also knew that the electrical facilities were inadequate, but they continued to accept the rent without asking any questions,” the editorial board of the East Bay Times wrote on Monday.
“The families are very pleased,” Mary Alexander, an attorney representing the families of 11 victims of the fire, told the East Bay Times, adding that her clients hope the Ngs “too will be held accountable. They should be charged.”
Bail for Almena, who was arrested north of the Bay Area in Lake County, has been set at $1.8 million. Harris was arrested in Los Angeles; his bail was set at $1 million. Both will be arraigned after they are returned to Oakland.
The District Attorney’s office found that Almena and Harris had hoarded flammable materials in the building, done construction work without permits or inspections, and deceived the police and fire departments about people living there illegally (including Almena). On the night of the fatal fire, they had also blocked one of the building’s only two exits.
“The paying guests at the event were faced with a nearly impossible labyrinth of the defendants’ making to get out of that building,” O’Malley said.
The Ghost Ship disaster was the deadliest building fire in California since the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. In its aftermath, Oakland and other cities around the US began to crack down on similar warehouse spaces over code violations — some of them fabricated by right wing trolls — prompting fears of worsening shortages of affordable housing and studio space for artists.