Records show repeat visits to Oakland warehouse before fire

Documents showed police and other city officials responding to numerous "calls for service" before the Ghost Ship fire on the night of Dec. 2

By Paul Elias
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Police officers responded to complaints of a raucous "rave" at a Northern 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 police and other city officials responding to numerous "calls for service" before the so-called Ghost Ship fire on the night of Dec. 2. One tenant told an officer responding to warehouse in February 2015 that the building was an unlicensed residence.

This Dec. 7, 2016 file photo members of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office stand outside the warehouse called the Ghost Ship the site of a fire, in Oakland, Calif.
This Dec. 7, 2016 file photo members of the Alameda County Sheriff's Office stand outside the warehouse called the Ghost Ship the site of a fire, in Oakland, Calif.

The more than 600 pages of documents released Wednesday at the request of The Associated Press and other media outlets reinforce the notion that mounting concerns that officials acted or ignored concerns about the warehouse.

City officials says they did not know people lived in the warehouse, but the documents show at least one call to police reporting it 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 to the site "this is a warehouse that is also an illegal shared housing." The officer reported the issue was resolved and he left.

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

Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said there are no records showing her department inspecting the building, but said city records indicated the warehouse was vacant and not required for fire-safety inspection like occupied venues. Reed is on leave for an unspecified reason.

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

Oakland Police officers responded to several landlord-tenant disputes at the warehouse in recent years.

What's more, an officer then 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 originally 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 fire outside the Ghost Ship warehouse in 2014 and paramedics several times in 2015 and 2016 responded to calls for help. There's no indication that firefighters or paramedics entered the warehouse because of these calls.

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 other 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."

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.

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