Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Oakland Officials Order Staff to Withhold Public Records Related to Ghost Ship Fire

by Darwin BondGraham
Tue, Dec 6, 2016 at 9:52 AM

As the East Bay Times reported yesterday, Oakland's Planning and Building Department refused a request made by their reporters for public records related to the warehouse known as the Ghost Ship which burned last Friday, killing at least 36.

According to an email obtained by the Express, Fire Department staff have also been ordered not to provide any information to members of the media regarding the deadly fire.

"No information is to be given by OFD personnel," reads the email, sent by Rebecca Kozak, and executive assistant to Oakland's Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed.


The Express filed a Public Records Act request for Fire Department, police and other city records last Saturday. The city has not yet responded.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Couple In Charge of Ghost Ship Lost Kids to Child Protective Services While Living in Oakland Warehouse

'There wasn’t anywhere to cook, so there was nowhere for them to get gas or plumbing'

by Darwin BondGraham and Nick Miller
Sun, Dec 4, 2016 at 9:20 PM

The couple in charge of the Ghost Ship warehouse lived there with their three children — and had their kids taken away by Child Protective Services last year because authorities feared for their safety.

According to several sources who spoke to the Express, and also posts on Facebook by Almena himself, he and his partner, Micah Allison, apparently regained custody of their children in June of this year after losing them in February 2015.

Derick Almena.
  • Derick Almena.
Since, the couple and their three children have resided at Ghost Ship, which burnt down on Friday, resulting in 33 deaths so far.

Almena and Allison were not present when the fire broke out. Their current whereabouts are unknown. Almena is currently on probation for receiving stolen property.

The Ghost Ship warehouse has been described as a "labyrinth" of wood, carpets, furniture, art, and other highly flammable materials. Authorities said the building had no sprinklers, fire extinguishers, and only two exits. Many of Almena's friends warned him the space was a fire hazard, and the city was investigating the building for illegal living quarters before the blaze.

Inside the Ghost Ship warehouse. - FACEBOOK
  • Facebook
  • Inside the Ghost Ship warehouse.
Mariah Benavides says she was a former nanny and babysitter for the couple and worked for them for more than a year. She explained that, when she visited Ghost Ship, she witnessed "nails coming from the ground" and "no running water.”

“There wasn’t anywhere to cook, so there was nowhere for them to get gas or plumbing," she told the Express.

Last year on Facebook, Almena posted several long messages about his battles with Los Angeles and Alameda County welfare authorities, who took custody of his children.

In one post, he wrote that his children were taken into protective custody on February 15, 2015, after authorities found them at Ghost Ship.
“my kids have been taken from me by CPS. my beautiful children were kidnapped feb 15 2015... from my arts space in Oakland...”
And then months later, on May 10, 2015, he wrote:
Almena wrote in other posts that his children were relocated with a relative to Los Angeles County. Benavides alleged that, at one point, the couple was "living in an RV on [Los Angeles'] Skid Row with the kids" and authorities took them.

The RV, according to a Facebook post by Almena, appears to have been a small trailer that was converted into a "gypsy wagon."

The RV from Los Angeles.
  • The RV from Los Angeles.

Child protective cases are confidential under the law and the Express was not able to obtain official court records. But Almena also posted a letter from the Alameda County Social Services agency addressed to his partner Allison on Facebook which stated that three of their children were removed from their care on March 30, 2015, and that in August the three youngsters were declared dependents of the juvenile court.

The father frequently pleaded with people on Facebook to put pressure on CPS and the Los Angeles judge overseeing his case so that he could regain custody of his children.

According to an August 18, 2015, post on Facebook by Allison, their final court hearing was that month.

And in a post from May 11 of this year, Almena wrote: "We go to court today for the official release of our kids from CPS custody.... They will return june 5th."

The couple and their children had lived in a home in East Oakland before moving into the Ghost Ship warehouse. This moved occurred during the East Bay's housing crisis, when many artists have been marginalized and displaced due to rising rents.

Operator of 'Ghost Ship' Lived Inside Site of Oakland Warehouse Fire with Wife, Children, Was on Probation

A previous landlord, who owns a different Fruitvale warehouse where Almena leased space, filed an eviction lawsuit against him in 2014.

by Darwin BondGraham
Sun, Dec 4, 2016 at 5:31 PM

Derick Ion Almena was the man behind Ghost Ship, the venue inside the Oakland warehouse where a deadly fire killed at least 33 people late Friday night. Friends say he's an important, if contentious, figure in the East Bay underground arts and music scene. Former-friends criticized him for allegedly living inside the warehouse with his wife and children. And Almena also has a history of run-ins with the law.

Currently, Almena is on probation for receiving stolen property. Other court records indicate that he has been embroiled in legal disputes in recent years with friends, including two attempted restraining orders against him last year.

And a previous landlord, who owns a different Fruitvale warehouse where Almena leased space, filed an eviction lawsuit against him in 2014.

Almena's whereabouts are currently unknown. The Express has been unable to contact him, and he did not respond to phone calls or messages on social media. Two sources close to the arts collective inside the warehouse told the Express that they hear he has left Oakland.

Court records show that he Almena was charged with a felony for possessing stolen property in January 2015. The District Attorney's office allowed Almena to reach a deal, which had him serve only two days in county jail. His probation term runs until January 2019.

Just months before being charged for possession of stolen property, Almena was hit with an eviction lawsuit seeking that he and a co-tenant vacate property located at 4701 San Leandro Street in Oakland.

Almena was also sued by former friends who for alleged "harassment." According to court records, in January 2015 two different individuals sought temporary restraining orders against Almena alleging that he was harassing them. The declined to speak to the Express regarding the harassment.

Almena filed for a restraining order against a person named Shelly Porter in February 2015.

The Express was unable to determine the details of the harassment allegations and the District Attorney's office did not immediately provide records.

At a press conference this afternoon, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf confirmed that the Oakland police have opened a criminal investigation regarding the warehouse fire. She also confirmed that a team of investigators from the District Attorney's office are on scene.

Schaaf said that crews searching the charred building are preserving evidence in case the DA decides to criminally prosecute the landlord, Almena, or anyone else.

Teresa Drenick of the Alameda County District Attorney Office confirmed for the Express that the District Attorney's Office has activated its criminal investigation team and the arson task force.

"We are working with the local law enforcement effort conducting the criminal investigation into this tragedy. Our victim witness assistant division has also mobilized to provide help to victims and their loved ones," said Drenick.

Officials Continue to Search Oakland's Ghost Ship Warehouse, 36 Fire Victims So Far

Fire battalion chief described the process as 'somber.' She said they have been 'mindful' and 'compassionate' as they removed debris 'literally bucket by bucket.'

by Nick Miller
Sun, Dec 4, 2016 at 8:35 AM

Update: More victims identified on Monday night:

Em Bohlka, 33, Oakland, Calif.
Micah Danemayer, 28, Oakland, Calif.
Chelsea Dolan, 33, San Francisco, Calif.
Feral Pines, 29, Berkeley, Calif.
Alex Ghassan, 35, Oakland, Calif.
Michela Gregory, 20, South San Francisco, Calif.
Edmund Lapine, 34, Oakland, Calif.
Jennifer Morris, 21, Foster City, Calif.
Benjamin Runnels, 32, Oakland, Calif.
Jennifer Kiyomi Taouye, 31, Oakland, Calif.

Update: As of Monday morning, city officials announced 36 victims.


Update: City of Oakland officials release the names of six victims of the warehouse fire. They did not release one name because the victim was just 17 years old:

Cash Askew, 22, Oakland, Calif.
David Clines, 35, Oakland, Calif.
Nick Gomez-Hall, 25, Coronado, Calif.
Sara Hoda, 30, Walnut Creek, Calif.
Travis Hough, 35, Oakland, Calif.
Donna Kellogg, 32, Oakland, Calif.
Brandon Chase Wittenauer, 32, Hayward, Calif.

Earlier this afternoon, officials said that the anticipate more victims and have only searched 35-40 percent of the warehouse.

They explained that they are finding victims in all quadrants of the buildings. They also said that these individuals come from all over the world, including Asia and Europe, and that they are working with the state department to notify the families.

A sheriff's office spokesman said they "have no idea" how many victims remain the the warehouse.

Update: As of 3 p.m on Sunday, officials now say the death toll is 33. Mayor Libby Schaaf hinted that the Alameda County District Attorney would be opening a criminal investigation. And a sheriff's department spokesperson said that there are victims from all over the world, including Europe and Asia.


Update: As of noon on Sunday, officials now say the death toll is 30 people.


Here are some quick updates from the Ghost Ship Oakland Warehouse Fire in Oakland:

This morning, at 8 a.m., officials announced that various agencies have been able to breach a second wall in the warehouse to facilitate their search. So far, they've been able to search just 20 percent of the building. And they expect the work at the warehouse to continue for "several days."

An Oakland fire battalion chief described the process as "somber." She said they have been "mindful" and "compassionate" as they removed debris "literally bucket by bucket."

After searching only 20 percent of the warehouse, they've discovered 24 victims.

They expect that number to rise.

"It was quiet, it was heart-breaking," the battalion chief said.

The chief said that they've yet to locate the source of the fire, or search the staircase to the second-floor mezzanine.

Officials will hold another update press conference at 11 a.m.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

'I Genuinely Thought I Was Going To Die': Reddit User Describes Terrifying Escape From Oakland Warehouse Fire

'The stair room had three different exits and only one would have been the way to outside.'

by Nick Miller
Sat, Dec 3, 2016 at 7:55 PM

One of the many rooms inside the Ghost Ship warehouse, which people described as a giant "maze." - COURTESY OF GHOST SHIP'S WEBSITE
  • Courtesy Of Ghost Ship's Website
  • One of the many rooms inside the Ghost Ship warehouse, which people described as a giant "maze."

It's worth sharing this terrifying account by a Reddit user of their escape from last night's Oakland warehouse fire.

The user also reports that there was a brave individual who remained in the building, yelling into the blinding smoke, so that people could find the exit.

The user describes learning of the fire while on the second floor, then descending the lone, narrow, ramshackle staircase as smoke engulfed the warehouse:
Once I was down there it was awful. I couldn't see or breathe. It was hot smoky and hard to focus. Thankfully at this point it wasn't so hot that I was burning just being there. There were other people crawling around on the floor too.
The layout of Ghost Ship is, as others have told the Express, like "a labyrinth," which made it nearly impossible for people crawling on the ground and blinded by smoke to figure out how to exit. There also apparently were dead-end passageways, making it even more difficult to find an exit.
So I was down there and I was having trouble finding the exit. At this point I genuinely thought I was going to die choking on smoke in these horrid conditions. Part of this was definitely because the lower level is like a fucking maze. The stair room had three different exits and only one would have been the way to outside.

The user wrote that a hero posted up at the warehouse's exit, yelling into the smoke for people to come toward him:
Some dude who had already gotten out stood right by the exit with all the billowing smoke and was repeatedly yelling "this is the exit" "exit." I can say without a doubt that that dude saved my life. If he wasn't there yelling I would have never found the exit and I probably would have died.
The user also noted in his post that there is a crowd-funding page raising money for victims. You can donate here.

Artists Who Survived Oakland Warehouse Fire Discuss The Tragedy, Those Missing, Need for Safe Underground Spaces

'If people think by punishing spaces it will make potentially unsafe underground venues go away, they’re wrong.'

by Sam Lefebvre
Sat, Dec 3, 2016 at 6:01 PM

Smoke billows out of Ghost Ship, a warehouse artist collective in Oakland, during last night's fire. - PHOTO BY SEUNG LEE
  • Photo by Seung Lee
  • Smoke billows out of Ghost Ship, a warehouse artist collective in Oakland, during last night's fire.

Bay Area party promoter and record label owner Nihar Bhatt says he arrived at Ghost Ship last night at 11:15 p.m. He stopped out front of the building to chat with musician Russell Butler and Joey Casio (a.k.a. Joseph Matlock). Then Casio entered the building. Approximately ten minutes later, Bhatt says someone shouted, “Fire!”

Attendees started spilling out of the Fruitvale neighborhood warehouse, billowing smoke in their wake. Bhatt recalled people out front yelling their friends’ names. He could also hear wood buckling inside. “It was surreal, hard to believe the horror unfolding,” Bhatt said.

“The overwhelming feeling was of complete powerlessness."
Bhatt has attended several events at Ghost Ship in the past year. But this one, he said, was expected to draw the biggest crowd yet.

His friend Butler, a local electronic music who also performs as Black Jeans, said that performers had yet to begin when the fire started. Johnny Igaz — who’s unaccounted for after the fire — was playing records in a booth at the back of the room.

According to Butler, approximately sixty people were present for the gig (not including residents who may have also been in the building). “I’m sure it would’ve swelled to double or triple that number later on,” Bhatt said.

“A lot of my friends were on their way."

Some of those who remain unaccounted for after the tragic fire are integral members of the East Bay arts and music community.

Bhatt, who co-runs prominent local party series Surface Tension and record label Left Hand Path, described Chelsea Faith (Chelsea Dolan), who is still missing, as a “key link between the Nineties rave scene and a new generation of producers, including myself, who consider her a mentor.”

And his friend Casio is well known in the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest for his industrial-techno sets as Obsidian Blade. He remains missing after entering the building, as well.

Bhatt said that “a lot of us owe their politics and their musicianship to [Casio]. … He emboldens people to break rules.”

Micah Danemeyer, who is also missing, “is just a tireless promoter of the underground scene, even when it was a completely unrewarding role,” Bhatt said.

At least nine people died and dozens remain unaccounted for after the three-alarm fire at the Fruitvale live-work space. Officials say they are preparing for nearly 40 casualties at the scene.

Bhatt and Butler wanted to emphasize in their interviews with the Express that the local underground music scene isn’t to blame. The counterculture scene gravitates toward these potentially unsafe and “illegal” venues because of the mercenary local housing-market and the premium on space.

They also said that these non-permitted residences that host underground shows are often the only safe place for marginalized people, those who find above-the-board and sanctioned venues unsafe or inhospitable.

Sadly, some of the dozens of attendees who remain unaccounted for are transgender people and people-of-color.

“We need spaces that are open to folks who are beaten down and oppressed by living daily under patriarchy and white supremacy,” Butler said.

“Last night, had the potential to be incredible.”

That said, Bhatt admitted that “several people told [him] before this that they were thinking of calling out [Ghost Ship] for being unsafe, for being a fire hazard.”

“I think they bit their tongues because we desperately need places to gather,” he said.

He also argued that the city cracking down on underground scenes won’t be a solution. “If people think by punishing spaces it will make potentially unsafe underground venues go away, they’re wrong,” he said. “The trouble is the lack of spaces to begin with. Places that are safe and also somewhat unscripted are necessary.

“Otherwise this will happen again.”

Nihar and Butler were scheduled to perform tonight at The Legionnaire Saloon, but they’ve turned the event into a quieter gathering for the affected community. The bar is contributing a portion of the night’s proceeds toward fire relief. Gray Area Foundation for the Arts, a registered nonprofit in San Francisco, created a crowd-funding page for the victims at YouCaring.com.

Was Operator of Oakland Warehouse Fire Venue 'Warned' of Safety Issues, 'Illegal' Construction, Danger?

City had been investigating the building

by Nick Miller
Sat, Dec 3, 2016 at 1:27 PM

Derrick Ion Almena allegedly operates the Ghost Ship venue and Satya Yuga art collective, the site of last night's Oakland warehouse fire. Just hours after the blaze killed presumably several dozen people, he posted the following Facebook:


But several commenters on Ion's page accused him of being warned by local law enforcement, building officials, and even friends that his warehouse parties and event space was dangerous.


Ion has yet to respond to social-media messages, or phone calls and texts to a number for Satya Yuga.

City of Oakland records show several "habitability" complaints made against the property's owner, the latest on November 14,  specifically citing an "illegal interior building structure." Officials also visited the building on that date.

A city investigation against the warehouse was ongoing when the fire hit last night.

As the Express also reported: "On November 13. another complaint had been lodged against the property's owner alleging "a ton of garbage piling up on the property" next to the warehouse, including possibly "hazardous" materials."

The Express will update this post with more information.

Building Engulfed by Deadly Oakland Fire Had Pending Habitability Complaints

City inspectors visited the building on November 14.

by Darwin BondGraham
Sat, Dec 3, 2016 at 11:02 AM

At least nine people are confirmed dead and several dozen are missing after a fire ripped through the the "Ghost Ship" warehouse in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood late Friday night.

As many as 100 people were crowded inside the warehouse for a party when the blaze erupted. They struggled to escape the flames and smoke. Officials fear dozens could have been killed.

City records show that there were habitability complaints made against the property's owner as recently as November 14 regarding an "illegal interior building structure." City inspectors appear to have visited the building on that date, but were unable to verify whether there were code violations. The city's investigation was still pending when the fire broke out last night.

On November 13 another complaint had been lodged against the property's owner alleging "a ton of garbage piling up on the property" next to the warehouse, including possibly "hazardous" materials.

The warehouse is owned by a trust set up by Chor N. Ng of Oakland, according to property records. The Express was unable to contact Ng.

The inside of the "Ghost Ship" warehouse. - HTTP://WWW.OAKLANDGHOSTSHIP.COM/
  • http://www.oaklandghostship.com/
  • The inside of the "Ghost Ship" warehouse.

In October 2014, the city cited Ng because of housing and other structures that were being built inside the warehouse without permits.

The previous month, the building was also noticed for blight because of a large number of pallets and construction materials blocking the sidewalk.

Firefighters who battled the blaze last night reported that some of the victims were likely trapped in the building because they couldn't escape down a "makeshift, one-way stairwell" that connected the first and second floor. The stairs were made of wooden pallets, the firefighters said.

Photos of the interior of the warehouse show that it was a labyrinth of rooms and nooks crowded with carpets, furniture, and art — all of it highly flammable.

City officials didn't immediately return calls and emails from the Express seeking more information about the warehouse's various building code violations.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Local Green Energy Authority Quietly Launches in Alameda County

'Without sounding trite, the future is bright.'

by Darwin BondGraham
Thu, Dec 1, 2016 at 4:57 PM

The Oakland City Council voted last Tuesday to become part of a regional green energy authority, joining twelve other cities in Alameda County. Together the cities represent 90 percent of the county's total electrical load.

"Without sounding trite, the future is bright for the power authority," said Victor Uno of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Uno was one of several labor union representatives who served on the regional steering committee that helped set up the East Bay Community Energy Authority.

"This will be the largest of its kind given how many cities are joining," Uno said. "It will have a real impact on how power is acquired, and there will also be community benefits and training for workers."

So far Albany, Emeryville, Berkeley, Oakland, Piedmont, San Leandro, Dublin, Livermore, Hayward, Union City, Fremont, and Alameda County's governing boards have all voted to join the authority, which legally came into existence today, December first.

"This is a big deal," said Oakland Councilmember Dan Kalb, another steering committee member. "With the concerns we all have at the national level about how the Trump administration might backtrack on climate policy, it's important that local jurisdictions and states step up."

Kalb said the energy authority will initially purchase renewable energy on the open market, but quickly use ratepayer revenues to build out local renewable energy projects and make the existing energy infrastructure more efficient, while also reducing electricity bills.

The authority is being incorporated under a 2002 state law that allows local governments to takeover the process of deciding where to purchase energy from incumbent investor-owned utilities like PG&E. Instead of paying profits to shareholders, the public authority reinvests ratepayer revenues in lower electrical bills and new green energy projects.

Uno's union hopes to prepare workers for many of the construction, engineering, and maintenance jobs the authority is expected to generate across the region. Workers will be building solar arrays, maintaining windmills, and also performing upgrades on energy infrastructure to make it more efficient.

The new board of the East Bay Community Energy Authority is expected to meet for the first time next January.

Oakland Ethics Commissioner Accuses Officials of Abusing Access to Free Warriors and Raiders Tickets

'The only reason they’re going is to enjoy the game [is] to enjoy the liquor and the food.'

by Steven Tavares
Thu, Dec 1, 2016 at 4:04 PM

Last night, an Oakland Public Ethics Commissioner said he's certain that officials are abusing the privilege of free tickets to Warriors and Raiders' luxury suites.

“The only reason they’re going is to enjoy the liquor and the food,” Commissioner Stephen Shefler said during an informational hearing at City Hall. “These people are 99.9 percent enjoying the game and one-tenth of a percent of the time doing oversight."

He added that residents have a right to be angry about this misuse of free tickets.

After a series of media reports earlier this year accusing local officials of hoarding Warriors tickets and even doling them out to cronies, the Oakland PEC agreed to investigate the city and county’s methods of distributing tickets for all events at the Oakland Coliseum and Oracle Arena.

But despite this ongoing investigation and public uproar, the number of request for free tickets have not abated.

For example, Council members Dan Kalb, Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Abel Guillen reportedly have two-tickets each for tonight’s Warriors game versus the Houston Rockets.

Wednesday’s hearing was not part of the investigation, according to the commission’s vice chairman, Marc Pilotin, but instead a discussion of ways to reform the process in the future.

As part of the licensing agreement between the Coliseum Joint Powers Authority, which oversees the complex, and the three sports teams that use the facilities, a total of three suites are available to every event. This comes out to 20 tickets at Oracle, which primarily houses the Golden State Warriors, and 18 tickets for games and events at the Oakland Coliseum.

Officials are supposed to use the freebies to oversee facility operations. But critics say this rather large inventory of tickets allows city officials to essentially become de-facto season-tickets holders on the public’s dime —  or even curry favor from potential campaign donors.

Councilmember Larry Reid, who often sports a floppy Raiders cap to Oakland Coliseum Authority meetings, is one of the most frequent ticket users, according to the PEC. He requested tickets for events 356 times over the past three years. Council members Gibson-McElhaney and Guillen also often request tickets for events.

Scott McKibben, the executive director of the Coliseum Authority, told the commission last night that each entity involved in overseeing the complex — the city, county and JPA — distributes the tickets on their own.

Typically, each official is limited to two tickets per event, and on a first-come, first-serve basis. In addition, once officials receive the tickets, they are required to declare to the California Fair Political Practices Commission, along with a reason for the transaction. However, there is no record of who actually attends the event.

The value of the luxury suites varies. At Oracle, they range from $150,000 to $400,000 a season. And suites for the Raiders go for up to $75,000.

McKibben had used 85 free Warriors tickets, worth $255,800, in three years, according to an investigation by the East Bay Times.

Officials are supposed to attend events to oversee venue operations. But some commissioners strongly questioned whether this was actually happening. “How long does it take to oversee the operation of a facility?” asked Commissioner Dana King.

King at times was incredulous. “Members of the marijuana commission are not getting free pot. The Art Commission doesn’t get free works of art. Why does this commission get free tickets?” she asked.

During a contentious moment, McKibben refused to place judgment on how much time an official performed oversight versus watching the event.

A representative from the FPPC told city commissioners that state law does not require disclosure of such details. In addition, additional oversight public officials' use of tickets is not on the FPPC’s radar at this time.

It's unclear how many staff hours are dedicated to management and allocation of free Warriors and Raiders tickets.

JoAnne Speers, a professor of ethics at the University of San Francisco, said public officials have a duty to be stewards of public resources, including tickets to events at facilities it oversees. Even the slightest appearance of misuse is damaging to the public’s trust, she added.

A better distribution policy would focus on using tickets to spur economic development, rewarding employees for good work, and allow underprivileged youth and community groups, who might not have access to games and concerts.

Allowing a single person to dole tickets might also help with oversight, Speers said.

Elsewhere, city officials in Santa Clara refused access to tickets at the new Levi’s Stadium, which hosts the 49ers and other large events — perhaps recognizing the pitfalls that can arise from free tickets.

However, in the state capital, Sacramento, the city actually owns a suite at its new arena for the Kings. Nearly two-dozen tickets, at a value of $200 a pop, are available for every event, and the city intends to delegate a full-time employee — at a $100,000 salary per year — to be in charge of ticket allocation. There is an emphasis on giving those tickets to nonprofit groups, however.

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