Ghost Ship warehouse landlords break silence, blame fire on electrician
The reclusive owners of the Ghost Ship warehouse, where 36 people died in a fire, claim the electrician lied about being a licensed contractor
By David Debolt
East Bay Times
OAKLAND, Calif. — Breaking a long silence, the reclusive owners of the Ghost Ship warehouse, where 36 people died in a fire, are blaming the tragedy on their electrician, claiming he lied about being a licensed contractor.
Since the Dec. 2, 2016, fire killed 36 partygoers, landlord Chor Ng and her children, property managers Kai and Eva Ng, have refused to give interviews and stayed out of the spotlight. But the elusive landlords told their story for the first time in court documents filed recently in response to a civil lawsuit by the victims' families, one survivor and residents who lost everything in the blaze.
Meanwhile, the city of Oakland has appealed to the California State Supreme Court, seeking to overturn Alameda Superior Court Judge Brad Seligman's ruling that the city had a "mandatory duty" to ensure safety at the Ghost Ship. His ruling leaves Oakland potentially liable for the 36 deaths.
The State Supreme Court has not yet decided whether it will hear the case, but the League of California Cities has filed briefs urging the court to do so.
In the Ngs response to the suit, they also allege master tenant Derick Almena broke his lease by renting space for people to live at the Fruitvale district building, which is zoned only for commercial use. Almena and and co-tenant Max Harris are headed to trial next year, each charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter. The Ngs do not face criminal charges.
But much of the Ngs' focus in the civil suit is on Benjamin Cannon, who performed electrical work at the Ngs' buildings. Cannon, 38 of Healdsburg, subleased from the body shop next door to the Ghost Ship to run a "tiny home" business. The Ngs owned Ghost Ship, the body shop, a cell phone store and other businesses around the corner on International Boulevard.
Cannon arrived at Ghost Ship sometime late 2014 with big ideas on how to improve the electrical conditions. The Ngs, in court records, accuse him of fraud.
In March 2017, this newspaper reported that Cannon installed a new transformer in the auto body shop in December 2014 after another transformer caught fire. A $32,808 invoice for the work sent by Cannon to Kai and Eva Ng said the small electrical fire was likely caused by a "catastrophically overloading" power system. Power flowed from the phone store at the corner of International Boulevard and 31st Avenue through the auto body shop and into Ghost Ship.
Newly filed court records show Cannon billed the Ngs for much more work than previously known. Invoices sent from Cannon to Kai Ng from Jan. 22 to May 5, 2015, total $28,028, according to copies included in the suit. Cannon billed the landlords for another transformer, installation of distribution panels and breakers and work needed for a photography studio.
In an email in January 2015, Cannon communicated with Kai Ng about installing a "cheaper" transformer that "we are going to use it a little bit differently than standard." It's unclear if that exact transformer was installed. State records show the contractor license for Cannon's company, CBC Construction & Engineering Inc., expired in September 2010.
An April 11, 2015, invoice -- less than two years before the deadly Ghost Ship fire -- said a power outage at the cell phone store was caused by "breakers in old PG&E room that were arcing." The invoice called for replacing two breakers and other work. The records show Kai Ng approved of and was aware of the work, but the suit claims Cannon misrepresented himself as a certified electrician when he was not. The Ngs deny being "negligent or careless."
Fire investigators could not determine the exact cause of the December 2016 fire but said it pointed to electrical. So far, Cannon has not cooperated with the civil case.
According to a copy of his Aug. 1 deposition, Cannon took the Fifth Amendment on most of the questions asked of him, including whether he performed electrical work at Ghost Ship and neighboring buildings.
Chris Dolan, who represented the victims' families at the deposition, said Cannon refused to answer "basic questions such as whether he had been in the Ghost Ship and whether he had a contractor's license and if and when it was suspended or taken away."
"It was everything I could do to restrain myself from reaching across the table and shaking the guy because of his smug participation and his apparent disregard of the seriousness of the matter and the lives lost," Dolan said. "It was as if he was playing some sort of amusing 'cat-and-mouse' game."
Cannon's attorney, Gregory de la Pena, did not return a call for comment but previously has said he is protecting his client from self incrimination. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs have filed a motion asking Judge Seligman to compel Cannon to answer the questions asked at his deposition. And the attorneys are still waiting on documents -- Cannon claims to have 70 terabytes of information relevant to the Ghost Ship case.
Years before he came to 31st Avenue in Oakland, Cannon made a name for himself in the online world of firearm sales and various other ventures, including a purported aerospace company. At age 29 in 2010, he was a founding member of the board of internet-based Calguns Inc., according to records and the Wall Street Journal.
The nonprofit and web forum site catered to younger gun owners. According to the Journal, Cannon "claimed his group was responsible for advancing gun rights in California by discovering an obscure legal path to circumvent the state assault-weapons ban without breaking the law." He also was the CEO of GUNPAL, Inc., a gun friendlier version of Paypal, according to online records.
Besides fraud, the Ngs are claiming breach of contract against Cannon. According to the Ngs filing, if they are "held liable for any problems stemming from the electrical system at the subject premises, it is because the Cannon cross-defendants materially breached the terms of the contract for the electrical work" by "creating dangerous conditions."
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