New Documents Reveal Oakland Officials Were Aware of Ghost Ship’s Numerous Problems: Raves, Kidnapping, Battery, Assault, And More

But is the city liable for the tragic fire?

Two individuals visit the Ghost Ship site this past Friday. Credits: By Damu Dailey

Over the years, Rich Howard put in his time checking IDs at Bay Area bars and clubs, so he wasn’t out of his element overseeing the entrance to the Ghost Ship warehouse during events. “I did that a lot,” he told the Express last week. “I would go there and just work the door.”

One evening in 2014, he posted up out front of Ghost Ship before a gathering for a nearby school that the warehouse’s master tenant Derick Almena’s kids attended. Howard says he was “pissed” at Almena at the time — more on that later — so much so that, when he noticed an Oakland Fire Department truck cruising by on 31st Avenue, he flagged it down.

“They had been driving by regularly, checking the place out” after extinguishing a recent couch fire on the sidewalk in September, Howard explained. “I waved them down and I said, ‘Hey, have you guys been in here?’”

The firefighters said no, after which he urged them to take a peek. “‘You need to check this place out.’” Twenty or so minutes later, he says the firefighters exited the warehouse “with a glazed look in their eyes.” Yet Howard claims that one firefighter told him the structure inside the warehouse was OK, that the building itself was “built to withstand a bomb.”

Ghost Ship failed this alleged diagnosis, though, when a blaze erupted just before midnight on December 2 and took the lives of 36 artists, musicians, and concert-goers. There is no documentation verifying the incident Howard recounted. But last week, the City of Oakland finally dumped more than 650 pages of public documents about the Ghost Ship, which confirm that public- safety officers visited the warehouse location often — in some cases several times in a month.

These records — which Oakland officials only handed over under the threat of litigation — reveal that cops and firefighters knew tenants resided inside Ghost Ship, illegally, that the warehouse hosted underground “raves,” and that violent altercations weren’t uncommon.

In fact, since 2014, the reports show that Oakland cops were called to Ghost Ship for everything from stolen RVs and tenant-landlord spats to kidnapping, battery, and sexual assault.

Police and other responders never communicated any of these violations to other departments. As Express reporter Darwin BondGraham first reported this past December, the warehouse wasn’t even in the city fire-inspection bureau’s system. And this raises the multimillion-dollar question:

Will the city be held liable for those who perished in the fire? Should the city have done more to improve the building’s safety?

Oakland Warehouse Coalition activist Matt Hummel, who for years lived in a prominent local artist space, says these new revelations, while not surprising, are troubling. “There’s a lot of fear,” he said, “that the city is going to have to pay out a lot of money.”

What Did The City Know?

On an early Sunday morning just after 1:30 a.m., a woman flagged down an Oakland police officer on International Boulevard. She divulged to him “that she had just left an illegal rave” at Ghost Ship, according to his police report. The promoters were charging $25 to get in, and someone was selling alcohol and ecstasy.

The officer drove a couple blocks over to the warehouse, where he observed “an unusually high number of vehicles parked around the area.” He also wrote that, when he approached the building, the individuals loitering out front disappeared inside and slammed the door.

This March 1, 2015, incident ended with the officer shutting down the party, but not until after some shenanigans involving the promoters and evacuating partygoers. Later that night, for example, master tenant Almena actually called the cops again so that they’d kick the stragglers out of his warehouse.

No one was cited, even though the officer wrote that he had dealt with Almena before. “I know from previous contacts with [Almena] (who rents the building) that this facility does not have a cabaret permit and is supposed to be an arts studio,” the police report read.

At this time, Ghost Ship operated under a different name — and the officer went so far as to locate and verify this former name on Facebook. He did not pass along the fact that Ghost Ship was an illegal club to any other city departments.

But failure to identify Ghost Ship as a problematic location for unlawful dwelling and parties can’t be pinned on one Oakland employee. Two days after the rave episode, on March 3, 2015, police were called to the warehouse again to deal with a person armed with box cutters and acting aggressively toward a “resident.”

In fact, law enforcement and firefighters turned up at the warehouse facility more than 55 times since 2007, with most of these encounters coming after late 2014 when Almena was running things. The Public Works Department also showed up nearly two-dozen times to deal with illegal dumping, graffiti, and other problems, including some 70 code-enforcement inspections at the warehouse and adjacent buildings since 1999.

In recent years, police visited the place for alleged sexual assault, theft, robbery, pistol-whipping, and more.

On September 26, 2014, police and fire crews even visited the warehouse due to a blaze. Engine Station 13, just around the corner from Ghost Ship, responded in the early morning and put out a burning couch, which had started on the sidewalk but apparently spread into the empty lot adjacent to the building. Almena told police at the time that “employees regularly work throughout the night on their projects” at the warehouse.

A couple months later, on December 3, 2014, officers showed up again, after a tenant called because his “landlord,” Almena, assaulted him. According to a police report, “Almena asked [the victim] for the rent money,” but when the victim said he only had $200, Almena “jumped” on him and “punched [him] in the back of his head with a closed fist.” The victim told the officer that he worried that “he might be murdered if both parties stayed under one roof.”

Later, however, Almena turned the tables and accused the victim of battery. The reporting officer was “unable to determine a primary aggressor.”
During that clash, Almena denied to police that anyone was living in the warehouse, arguing instead that people rented it out as a 24-hour art-work space.

This incident came on the heels of another alleged assault just weeks earlier, on October 15, 2014, but the city redacted most of the details in this police report.

Encounters with police escalated in 2015. On January 2, the fire department reported to the warehouse because of a “sexual assault” call. On January 13, police answered a call to service regarding a stolen Airstream recreational vehicle. And on January 20, police returned yet again to deal with alleged death threats against a tenant.

Eleven days later, on January 31, cops showed up once more for an incident involving a person with a gun inside the warehouse. This time, a tenant had told an officer “that her landlord had threatened her.” In the same report, it reads that the suspect “pulled a gun on several tenants inside the warehouse.” The city redacted nearly all of this incident report, as well.

On February 2, 2015: Cops arrived at Ghost Ship due to reports of a man armed with a shotgun inside the warehouse. In the police report, an officer wrote that “this is a warehouse that is also an illegal shared housing” residence. During this confrontation, one officer even attempted to mediate the conflict between a tenant and Almena, writing that he “advised both of them of the landlord/tenant laws.”

On May 26, 2015, there was another stolen-vehicle complaint and a landlord-tenant dispute. On June 14, 2015, police showed up at Ghost Ship after reports of a “friend stabbed with knife,” who was hiding from a suspect in the warehouse. The city redacted all of this report, too.

On September 12, 2015, there was a call for service due to loud “rave” music inside the building. Six days later, on September 18, one officer wrote that there was a pistol-whipping incident involving a tenant attempting to retrieve belongings, and who “has keys to this residence.” And on September 26, a fire-department call-for-service report described the warehouse as a “family dwelling.”

Just last year, on January 17, there was report that another victim was “pistol-whipped” during an incident that an officer summarized as a “kidnapping.” The alleged crime involved stolen music gear and laptop computers. This officer’s multipage report is almost completely redacted, as well.

And the most recent incident (also redacted) before the fire was October 29 of last year, when an officer was called to the warehouse because of a “report of [an] attempted rape.”

Who’s Accountable?

It’s important to note that the City of Oakland refused to make these routine police and fire reports available to media outlets, even months after Public Record Act requests by several publications. Only until attorneys representing the East Bay Times laid down the hammer, in the form of a letter threatening litigation, did the city finally turn them over this past Thursday. Yet there remain unreleased records.

As to why the Ghost Ship’s numerous problems didn’t spur action by the city before the fire, last week, Mayor Libby Schaaf told the Times that the city has an as-yet-unimplemented new computer system that she hopes will improve intradepartmental communication. “We are going to also look for opportunities to improve information sharing, to improve coordination,” she told that paper. However, she wouldn’t say whether it’s the duty of a police officer to identify code-enforcement violations, for fear that expanding a cop’s purview might “chill” people on calling the police for help.

Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan told the Express that a simpler solution might be to require fire inspectors to check out all buildings in the city regularly, even ostensibly vacant buildings. “This type of fire danger didn’t rise quickly. If there had been an annual inspection, it would have been caught,” she argued.

She said that, because of the laws passed last month protecting tenants and residents living in unconventional spaces, annual inspections shouldn’t perpetuate housing insecurity, or a crackdown on warehouse spots. “It isn’t about hitting harder. It’s about aiming right,” Kaplan said.

Meanwhile, attorney James Cook, with the law offices of John Burris, told the Express last week that the city’s withholding of public documents makes it “look like you had something to hide.”

“I think that the city’s going to be liable,” he said. “All these things point to a lack of intent to sort of be proactive about the situation.”

But Matt Hummel said none of the police reports were “really a surprise.” For years, Hummel resided at Mother’s Cookies — an Oakland underground warehouse that he left during the Dot-Com bust — and he says police regularly showed up at his spot during after-hours parties. “And it was my job to give the officer a walk-through, to make sure it wasn’t dangerous, basically. And they’d always leave, they’d never shut us down,” he said. And the parties would continue all night.

In fact, he explained that the cops who came and didn’t shut the party down “were considered heroes” at that time.

“On one level, people are asking for autonomy from the city. And then, if the police, or the fire department, or whoever, gives it, it’s great,” he said. “Until there’s a problem, and then all these people are in trouble for looking the other way.”

And now, months after Ghost Ship’s ashes have settled, he says there are a lot of people in the music scene who feel guilty. “I hold myself responsible. I saw those stairs. I told a friend of mine a year ago that it was a fire trap,” Hummel said.

But now, the Oakland Warehouse Coalition member wants to look forward. “If we’re going to fix anything for the future, people need to be honest. And, right now, up until this point, a lot of people are embarrassed by their inaction. I’m embarrassed by my inaction.”

His goal is to get the city to “slow down” when it comes to searching for and auditing unconventional spaces.

Meanwhile, however, the city’s working to cover its proverbial ass by identifying problem warehouses and spaces, because it knows the lawsuits are coming. “The city’s going to argue that there’s no way that they should be liable, at all. It seems that things are going that way. They’re going to make Almena the scapegoat,” predicted attorney Cook.

Indeed, Almena is low-hanging fruit. As the Express reported in the weeks after the December 2 fire, the master tenant had built out the hollow Ghost Ship warehouse into a labyrinth of wooden furniture, carpets, art, and other highly flammable material. Tenants and friends repeatedly warned him that the spot — what with its pilfered electricity and dearth of sprinklers, exit signs, and fire extinguishers — was a hazard.

Almena also reportedly struggled with drug abuse, and in February 2015 lost his kids, who lived at the Ghost Ship, to Child Protective Services.

Tenant Rich Howard says he first found out about Ghost Ship from a neighbor. “I was talking to the guy at the liquor store, on the corner by the place. ‘They throw parties over there, they’re maniacs,’” he says someone working there told him. Howard eventually visited the building and, he says, Almena “actually convinced me to move in there that same day.” He says Howard worked with Almena to “get the building ready for a landlord inspection.”

The landlord who owns the Ghost Ship, Chor Ng, knew that people were living in the warehouse, Howard claimed. Last week, the East Bay Times reported that Ng owns several other properties in the East Bay where residents were living illegally.

Almena had a plan, however, if the authorities caught whiff of people dwelling inside the Ghost Ship: “‘If the city inspectors come by, you’ve got to hide,’” Howard said Almena told him.

He also says that his relationship with Almena quickly deteriorated. “He pretends like he wants to be Ken Kesey — but he’s actually Charles Manson,” is how Howard put it.

He and other tenants tried to unite and demand measures to improve safety, but he says Almena would laugh and blow them off, going so far as to place empty fire extinguishers around the warehouse, “like he was mocking us.”
“I’ve met a lot of narcissists in my life, but none like him.”

When a group of tenants finally confronted Almena to try and take over the lease, Howard said he threatened them:

“He said he would burn the place down instead of letting us have it.”