Records Reveal Several Visits to Oakland Warehouse by Officials Before Fire

By PAUL ELIAS | February 10, 2017

Police officers responded to complaints of a raucous “rave” at a California warehouse illegally used as an entertainment venue and residence two years before a late-night fire at the venue killed 36 partygoers, documents released by the city Wednesday showed.

The documents also showed that police and other city officials responded to numerous calls for service before the so-called Ghost Ship fire on the night of Dec. 2.

One tenant told an officer who went to the warehouse in February 2015 that the building in Oakland was an unlicensed residence.

The more than 600 pages of documents released at the request of The Associated Press and other media outlets reinforce the notion that officials did not act on resident and neighbor complaints about noise and safety hazards at the warehouse.

At least one person told police that people lived in the warehouse. Officials have said they had no idea the building was used as a residence.

On Feb. 2, 2015, a person called police after claiming to be locked out of the warehouse, telling the officer who showed up that “this is a warehouse that is also an illegal shared housing.” The officer reported that the issue was resolved and left.

Mayor Libby Schaaf has said improving communications between city departments is one of the reforms she is working on since the nation’s worst building fire in 13 years.

Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said there are no records showing her department had inspected the building. But she said city records indicated the warehouse was vacant and did not require fire-safety inspection like occupied venues. Reed is on leave for an unspecified reason.

Building records released previously and the documents provided Wednesday show some city officials were aware of activity inside the warehouse.

The records show Oakland police officers responded to several landlord-tenant disputes at in recent years.

What’s more, an officer reported shutting down an “illegal rave with drug and alcohol sales” on March 1, 2015. After leaving, the officer returned 20 minutes later to escort people from the warehouse who initially refused to leave. The officer noted no citations were issued.

Names and several pages of police reports released Wednesday were blacked out.

Oakland police spokeswoman Johnna Watson declined comment.

The documents also show public works officials removed graffiti and debris from outside the building in 2014 and firefighters responded to a blaze outside the warehouse in 2014.

Paramedics responded to calls for help several times in 2015 and 2016, but there is no indication that firefighters or paramedics entered the warehouse because of the calls.

The records show that over the past 30 years, Oakland code enforcers received at least 22 complaints about the warehouse and surrounding properties. They included complaints about blight, abandoned cars, trash, old tires, rodents and transients living on the property.

Derick Almena, the man who operated the Ghost Ship, was arrested in January 2015 and charged with possession of stolen property. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and agreed to make restitution.

No other citations appeared to have been issued. Almena did not return a phone call or reply to a text seeking comment.

The fire broke out Dec. 2 during a dance party and quickly ripped through the cluttered warehouse, which had been converted to artists’ studios and illegal living spaces. Oakland fire officials have yet to announce the cause of the blaze.

Former residents said the warehouse was a death trap with few exits, piles of driftwood and a labyrinth of electrical cords.

Photos of the interior showed a hodgepodge Bohemian scene of Tibetan prayer flags, Christmas lights and scores of wooden statues of Buddha, the virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, elephants and dragons that sat atop pianos and turntables.

The ground floor had RVs and nooks used as living spaces that were rented out to tenants, while the upstairs had space for concerts.

Most recently, Oakland city inspectors received complaints on Nov. 13 about the warehouse being remodeled into residences and on Nov. 14 about an illegal interior building structure, records show.

A building inspector who went to the warehouse left after being unable to get inside and later sent a request to the owner to gain entry.

Acquaintances and local authorities described repeatedly confronting Almena about what they believed were unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the warehouse.

The city did not release 911 recordings or dispatch calls that were requested by the media outlets.

The Alameda County district attorney has launched a criminal investigation.

(Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker and Janie Har in San Francisco and Jonathan J. Cooper in Sacramento also contributed to this report.)

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