OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — In the two years before the Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people in an illegally converted Oakland warehouse, police had been called to the site 35 times on reports of serious crimes, illegal raves, and once because 15 people had been barricaded inside, newly released city records show.
Oakland city management has come under devastating scrutiny since the fatal Dec. 2 fire. On Wednesday, the city released 304 pages of police records that show the city’s police, fire and building departments knew for two years that people were living in the building and holding illegal concerts and parties there, but took no action. The city released an additional 137 pages of Building Department records.
The 441 pages of records present a vivid record of, at the very least, official inattention.
The deadly fire at the Ghost Ship artists was followed by a host of evictions from similar unpermitted warehouse living and work spaces around the Bay Area.
Police were called to the Ghost Ship and related properties on reports of an alleged rape, a stabbing, multiple gun assaults and strong-arm robberies, illegal raves, and an incident in which 15 people had been barricaded inside the building by its alleged owners.
The alleged owners are believed to be master tenants Derick Almena and Micah Allison, a married couple who rented space in the warehouse to other tenants. They have been sued, along with the Ghost Ship’s owner, Chor Ng, by several families of victims.
“I don’t know why they wouldn’t report conditions that are dangerous to the people who live there and to the public coming in,” said Mary Alexander, an attorney representing some families.
“It’s inexcusable, and it’s negligence of the highest order to ignore it and not try to do something,” Alexander said Thursday, after the records were released.
The Ghost Ship was not permitted for residential use or as an entertainment venue. But as many as 18 artists and musicians lived in RVs and improvised bedrooms on the building’s first floor, and Almena who lived on the second floor with Allison and their three children, rented out the second floor for concerts.
Many of the newly released police reports mention the words “landlord” and “tenant,” indicating that officers knew people lived in the building. A February 2015 report states that a person who had called for help told the responding officer that “this is a warehouse that is also an illegal shared housing.”
“I met with [redacted] and [redacted],” the officer wrote. “I advised both of them of the landlord/tenant laws. I advised [redacted] of his legal obligations as a landlord and I spoke with [redacted] about her legal obligations as a tenant. Both parties agreed and acknowledged that they understood what their legal obligations and responsibilities were.”
A police report filed in January 2015 apparently identifies Almena as the building’s “landlord,” who threatened a tenant with a gun.
“Says they are making threats to kill the RP [Reporting Party],” the report states. “RP says suspect told her he has a gun. Per RP, suspect lives upstairs in building with his wife. RP says suspect advised her he is government informant. RP is in her unit/trailer. Suspect is inside upstairs. I met with [redacted] who advised me that her landlord had threatened her. She also told me this was documented in a report earlier today. She called again because she and [redacted] had gotten into a heated argument once again. [Redacted] threatened to throw out all of [redacted] belongings from her apartment. I provided [redacted] an incident # and advised her of the TRO/PRO/eviction process.”
Records show police knew the warehouse was also being used for concerts. Officer Hector Chavez filed an Illegal Cabaret Report in March 2015 in which he said he was called to the Ghost Ship for “an illegal rave with drug and alcohol sales.”
“I did not cite [redacted] for the OMC [Oakland Municipal Code] violation at this time,” he wrote. “I did not detain, handcuff or search anyone while on scene.”
According to Chavez’s report, police were called again to the warehouse 20 minutes after the rave was shut down because people refused to leave. Police responded and “preserved the peace” while the partygoers filed out.
“OPD officers are not trained to be building inspectors,” the city said in an unsigned email through a local communications firm it retained to answer media inquiries about the fire. “Their job is to serve and protect, and in the instances where officers visited the warehouse at 1315 31st Ave., they were on-site to deal specifically with the rave and potentially dangerous activities.”
A police department spokesman declined to comment on the records, directing inquiries to a phone number and city email address monitored by the communications firm.
But attorney Alexander said that officers had a duty to shut down the Ghost Ship or report it to other city departments that could shut it down.
“You can’t just turn a blind eye when you have knowledge and notice and it results in a horrific accident,” Alexander said. “They should know from their training that this is a fire hazard. There are not supposed to be people living in there. They know it. They’re supposed to report it to the building department. ”
Records show that building inspectors cited Ghost Ship owner Ng three times since 2009 for people living inside other unpermitted buildings she owns close to the Ghost Ship, including a space that adjoined it. Ng has not publicly commented on the fire, but her daughter has said that Ng didn’t know anyone lived on her properties.
Six families of victims have sued Almena, Allison, Ng and others, and Alexander said more lawsuits are on the way. The families claim their loved ones died because the defendants neglected to bring the building into compliance with safety codes and failed to evict tenants from space not zoned as a residence.
They also filed claims against Oakland and Alameda County, the first step in suing a government agency.
In a December interview, Alexander acknowledged that it would be difficult to sue the city and county given a California law that immunizes public entities from such claims. But she said the families can prevail if they show that Oakland and Alameda County acted negligently by not warning the public.
On Thursday, Alexander said the newly released records would boost her clients’ cases because they show that the city had acted negligently.
“We’re going to hold them accountable in the lawsuits I’ve brought,” she said. “What they should have done is to report it and to follow up and make sure the place is brought up to code, and they didn’t. They had people living there and they didn’t have permits to have events. These people in the police department knew and allowed it to continue.”
In their lawsuits, the families describe the interior of the warehouse as a maze of makeshift rooms cluttered with flammable art supplies and propane tanks, and at least one RV.
They say the 10,000-square-foot building had only two escape routes: a crude stairway at the front made of pallets and scrap wood, and a staircase at the back, hidden behind a stage.
There were no sprinklers, fire alarms or fire extinguishers, and no emergency exits, according to the lawsuits.
The cause of the fire has not been identified, but the complaints cite a dangerous and overloaded electrical system as a likely source. The Ghost Ship’s power was supplied from an auto shop next door via a cable snaked through a hole punched into the wall, and extension cords and cables were strewn around the building.
The electrical system threw off sparks and the circuit breakers blew out regularly. Unlicensed contractors, including Almena, had installed electrical boxes at the warehouse, the families said.
Although city officials say that police are not responsible for flagging illegal warehouses, the city indicated in its email that that could change in the wake of the fire.
“On an ongoing basis, we are looking for opportunities to improve our protocols and policies to ensure greater safety,” the email said.
A spokeswoman for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff did not return a request seeking comment on the police department’s failure to shutter the warehouse.