Two people were arrested on involuntary manslaughter charges in connection with the deadly California warehouse fire that killed three dozen people more than six months ago, including the manager of the property, officials said Monday.
Derick Almena was arrested Monday morning, along with warehouse tenant, Max Harris, in connection with the blaze, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said at a press conference on Monday afternoon.
Both Almena and Harris each face 36 counts of felony involuntary manslaughter, one for each of the victims of the fire, and up to 39 years in prison, officials said.
Almena was the leaseholder and founder of the hive-like artists’ collective at the warehouse, known as the “Ghost Ship,” where revelers had gathered on the night of Dec. 2 for party when the warehouse went up in flames.
A probable cause document from the district attorney’s office said Almena let Harris live in the warehouse starting in 2014 and made him its “creative director” — allowing him to collect rent, mediate any disputes between tenants, and act as an intermediary between Almena and the owners of the warehouse.
“Defendants Almena and Harris knowingly created a fire trap with inadequate means of escape, they then filled that area with human beings and are now facing the consequences of their actions,” O’Malley said.
O’Malley said her office must now prove that Almena and Harris “acted with gross or reckless” conduct akin to “disregard for human life.”
She said that because the two allegedly allowed people to live in the warehouse, deceived authorities and the property owners about that fact, conducted construction that included electrical work without proper permits and and held massive parties at the property, they had acted recklessly and created a “deadly and dangerous space.”
The probable cause document said that on the night of the fire, Harris allegedly blocked off an area of the second floor of the warehouse that included a stairwell in preparation for the party, meaning upstairs guests only had one escape route.
“The paying guests were faced with a nearly impossible labyrinth of the defendants” making to get out of that building,” she said.
Almena was arrested in Lake County, California, and Harris was arrested in Los Angeles County, she noted.
Almena’s attorneys said they would “vigorously defend him in the court of law” in a statement on Monday afternoon.
“We believe that these charges represent no less than a miscarriage of justice, and we are confident that this attempt to make a scapegoat out of our client will fail,” attorneys Jeffrey Krasnoff, Kyndra Miller and J. Tony Serra said in the statement.
No specific date had yet been set for the two to be arraigned in Alameda County, district attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick said.
Drenick said that because of the nature of the fire and “it’s consuming nearly all of the evidence in that warehouse,” the cause of the fire would likely “remain as undetermined.”
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement Monday afternoon that she applauded the charges filed by the district attorney’s office because they sent the message that “you won’t get away with making a profit by cramming people into dangerous spaces or failing to maintain safe living conditions.”
“The reckless and deceptive actions of Derick Almena and Max Harris claimed 36 innocent lives,” she said in the statement. “For years, they worked hard to escape legal scrutiny and deceive city officials. Because of their callous disregard for human life, they deserve to be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Officials have said that the fire that engulfed the warehouse was already raging on the ground floor before victim on the floor above realized anything was wrong.
The fire sent smoke pouring up two staircases, trapping the party goers who were overcome before they could escape, the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms said at a briefing back in December.
The structure, which was zoned as a warehouse but was converted without permits into a living space, had been on regulators’ radar for almost two decades before the deadly blaze, according to government records.
A habitability investigation of the warehouse was still pending at the time of the fire, records show.
At least 10 complaints had been recorded at the site, which included an adjoining vacant lot, since the family of Chor Nar Siu Ng began to purchase the properties in 1997, according to Oakland and Alameda County records.
Relatives of some of the victims have sued Ng, Almena and utility company Pacific Gas Electric for wrongful death.
Almena told the TODAY Show back in December that he was “incredibly sorry and that everything that I did was to make this a stronger and more beautiful community and to bring people together.”
Almena became increasingly distraught as the interview went on and was asked about how his own role in managing the space may have played a role in the incident.
“I didn’t do anything ever in my life that would lead me up to this moment. I’m an honorable man. I’m a proud man,” he said.
“No, I’m not going to answer these questions on this level. I’d rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents. I’d rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions. I’m so sorry, I’m incredibly sorry,” he said.
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