Prosecutors don’t charge owner of warehouse in deadly fire
OAKLAND, Calif. — The owner of an Oakland warehouse that officials say was illegally turned into living spaces was not mentioned when prosecutors announced long-anticipated charges stemming from a fire that killed 36 people at a dance party at the site.
In this Dec. 5, 2016 photo, Max Harris, 27, who considers himself the “creative director” or “camp counselor” at the Oakland warehouse “Ghost Ship” recounts the night of the fire during an interview at Lake Merritt, where a vigil for the fire victims was held in Oakland, Calif. A source close to the investigation tells The Associated Press Monday, June 5, 2017, that two men have been arrested and will be charged with involuntary manslaughter in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire that killed 36 partygoers.
Alameda County prosecutors instead charged a man who rented the warehouse and his assistant with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, saying they turned the venue known as the Ghost Ship into a “firetrap.”
District Attorney Nancy O’Malley declined to say if more charges were coming.
She previously said investigators would determine, “who knew what, who ignored what, and who completely disregarded what” in the deadly December blaze.
On Monday, she laid the blame on Derick Almena, the leaseholder and building operator, and Max Harris, a long-time tenant who is accused of renting space to a promoter for an unpermitted concert on the night of the fire.
A lawyer for Almena has said he is being used as a scapegoat in the fire. It was unclear if Harris had retained an attorney.
In 2013, Almena signed a five-year lease with Chor Ng. the owner of the warehouse in an area zoned for commercial uses, not residences or entertainment.
“Once Almena changed the occupancy of the building, it became his responsibility under the California fire code to install fire suppression systems,” prosecutors said in court documents. “Witnesses state they warned Almena numerous times about the obvious fire hazard in the warehouse.”
Prosecutors say the two men deceived Ng along with police and fire officials about people living illegally at the warehouse.
Ng and her attorney Keith Bremer did not return phone calls Tuesday from The Associated Press seeking comment. Ng has not commented publicly about the fire.
Ng’s daughter, Eva Ng, told the Los Angeles Times in December that her mother was unaware that people were living in the warehouse that she owned for 25 years.
Eva Ng didn’t return a phone message Tuesday.
Dan Horowitz, a longtime criminal defense attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area who is not involved in the case, said it would be more difficult to convict Ng than the others who have been charged.
“You have to get into the owner’s mind and that can get into a real gray area,” Horowitz said. “The current charges are crisp, clean and clear — the gross negligence of these guys is obvious and beyond belief.”
In Rhode Island, law enforcement authorities were confronted with a similar decision when they investigated a 2003 nightclub fire where 100 people died attending a concert by the band Great White.
In that case, as in Oakland, the site lacked proper permits and contained highly flammable material.
In both cases, the operators — not the property owners — were accused of ignoring safety standards such as providing adequate fire exits.
In Rhode Island, the band’s manager, who set off fireworks that started the fire, and the club’s two operators were each charged with 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter.
The manager was sentenced to four years in prison after pleading guilty. One of the operators received the same sentence while the other got probation.
Lawsuit settlements against the owner of the property and others totaled $176 million.
Mary Alexander, a lawyer who represents families of several victims of the Oakland Ghost Ship fire, said she was disappointed Ng wasn’t charged.
Alexander said it’s hard to believe Ng didn’t check on the condition of the building after the lease was signed in 2013.
Ng received a citation in 2014 for blight and clutter in an empty lot next to the warehouse — a violation that city records show was eventually corrected.
City records also show that building inspectors had opened an investigation into an “illegal interior building structure” at the warehouse three weeks before the fire.
It’s unclear if Ng knew of that investigation, and inspectors noted they had yet to enter the building to check out the complaint before the deadly fire.
“The owner absolutely had a duty to make the building safe,” Alexander said. “Are you telling me she never checked on the building she owned?”
Alexander and several other attorneys represent families of victims who are suing Ng, Almena, Harris and others for wrongful death.
This Monday, June 5, 2017, photo provided by the Lake County, Calif., Sheriff’s Office shows Derick Almena. Authorities say Almena illegally rented out space in an Oakland warehouse that caught fire, killing 36 partygoers. Almena and Max Harris, another man who organized the event, were each charged Monday with three dozen counts of involuntary manslaughter.