Attorneys for the man who started and maintained the Ghost Ship, an illegal living and events space in a Fruitvale warehouse where 36 people died in a fire in December, said today that the criminal prosecution against their client is a means to scapegoat him and shield others from financial liability.
In a combative press conference at his North Beach office, veteran defense attorney J. Tony Serra said Derick Ion Almena, 47, had been demonized by the media and was unaware of any danger in the warehouse.
If he had felt the Ghost Ship was dangerous, Almena wouldn’t have had his wife and children living there, Serra said.
Almena was charged this week by the Alameda County District Attorney’s office with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. He was arrested in Lake County and is now in Santa Rita Jail in Dublin on more than $1 million bail.
Prosecutors argue that he was criminally negligent in his use of the warehouse on 31st Avenue near International Boulevard, creating an environment stacked to the ceiling with flammable material that lacked adequate exists, lighting and fire safety precautions.
If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of 39 years in prison.
Another tenant at the Ghost Ship, Max Harris, was also arrested and charged this week for allegedly helping to plan the party the night of December 2 and blocking an exit during the setup. At this point, Serra and his team represent only Almena, providing his legal services without cost.
Almena’s wife, Micah Allison, spoke at the press conference as and said she and her husband were “devastated” by the loss of life. She said they weren’t there the night of the fire and were staying in a hotel because it was going to be a loud event.
“My desire is that the obvious focus of the media in demonizing us be shifted back onto the real issues at hand, which is how to create safe and affordable live-work spaces for artists and for human beings,” Allison said.
“We are all grieving. My husband is a good man. Max Harris is a good man. They’re not greedy, they’re not selfish, or reckless. I just hope everyone can start to have a little bit of compassion for everyone involved in what happened that night and we can bring that into the forefont of this reality,” she said.
Serra argued that the case shouldn’t be criminal at all and instead settled entirely in civil courts, where he seemed to acknowledge that Almena could share some liability, as well as PG&E, which was already named in a lawsuit, and the Oakland Fire Department, which Serra argued was aware of the dangers there but did nothing.
Co-counsel Jeffrey Krasnoff floated a theory that PG&E could be to blame for the fire, suggesting that an overheating meter and inadequate exterior wiring could have been responsible.
The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office has said that because so much evidence was destroyed, the exact cause of the fire may never be known.
But there have been reports that Almena had illegally wired the building, snaking extension cords throughout. The East Bay Times has reported that at one point, Harris even warned the building owners about the state of the electrical system but they did nothing.
Kyndra Miller, another of Almena’s legal team, questioned why the landlord wasn’t facing criminal charges as well. She said the response from the property owner, Chor Ng, amounted to, “I don’t care, pay the rent.”
Almena is next scheduled to appear in court on Thursday. His attorneys say they will take the case to trial.
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