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Video: Body cam footage shows police aware of Ghost Ship trouble 2 years before fire

The video shows Officer Hector Chavez responding to a “rave” at the building and telling organizers he intended to alert city officials

By Jenna Lyons
San Francisco Chronicle

OAKLAND, Calif. — Police body-camera footage released Thursday confirmed that an officer broke up a noisy, unpermitted music party at the Ghost Ship warehouse in Oakland more than 21 months before a fire ripped through the building and killed 36 people at a similar event.

The video shows Officer Hector Chavez responding to the Fruitvale district building in the early morning of March 1, 2015, and ordering organizers of what he described as a “rave” to shut down the party and clear out the guests.

Chavez told the organizers that he intended to write up a report and alert city officials.

On Dec. 2, 2016, a blaze swept through the cluttered firetrap, killing the 36 people attending an unpermitted electronic music event.

Oakland police said Chavez filed a report that was sent to the department’s records database and directed to the vice unit. It was then forwarded to the department’s Alcohol Beverage Action Team and has been pending in the system since.

“At the time, reports noting a potentially (or alleged) unlicensed cabaret were viewed as low-priority infractions,” the department said in a statement Thursday. “Since the Ghost Ship tragedy, those policies have changed.”

In his report, which has also been made public, Chavez noted that he responded to complaints from neighbors that “an illegal rave with drug and alcohol sales” was going on at the building at 1305 31st Ave. But officials on Thursday could not say what happened after the officer’s report was filed.

The Police Department sent a tweet that said officials were trying to determine “if city personnel was notified after report filed.”

The situation cast light on the unclear referral process in place before the Ghost Ship fire for authorities reporting such venues to the city. In the aftermath of the deadly blaze at the artist collective, the city “revised and strengthened” its referral policies, according to city officials.

The city now has a formal, written policy issued by the Oakland Police Department, according to officials. It was not immediately shared with The Chronicle.

The 20-minute body-camera footage details one of several accounts made public in February when Oakland released more than 600 pages of records on visits by police officers, firefighters, building inspectors and public works staffers to the Ghost Ship and neighboring buildings before the fire.

The video begins with Chavez knocking on the door of the warehouse about 1:30 a.m. as heavy bass pounds in the background. When a promoter answers the door and Chavez informs him of a noise complaint, the promoter tells him he can’t enter the premises.

“It’s almost 2 a.m. in the morning. I’m getting noise complaints,” Chavez says. “I’m not leaving until you get everybody out and shut the music off.”

There appears to be some scuffle over a door closing on Chavez’ foot but the promoter concedes and partygoers begin to file out.

“I will report this to the city.” Chavez says, mentioning they need to have a permit to be operating a “rave.”

“I will be talking to the city, and we’ll be dealing with this place,” the officer says.

Chavez learned the venue was charging people $25 to enter the event, which is why he said they must have a permit. The promoter, however, passed off the fees as monthly dues for membership in a private club he called “Outlet.”

No arrests were made. The police report mentions a municipal code infraction for operation without a cabaret license but it’s unclear what the follow-up process was.

Efforts to reach Chavez on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Chavez appeared to be very familiar with the warehouse. Toward the end of the video, he tells the promoter again he will contact the city and seems to already know the primary tenant Derick Almena.

“No more music. If I come back, I’m going to give you a fine. It’s going to be a very, very expensive fine,” Chavez says in the video. “I’m still going to make sure that the city knows about this place, and I’m going to talk to the owner of this place as well.”

A man Chavez was talking to answers, “His name’s Derick.”

“I know, I know. I’ve been here quite a few times,” Chavez responds.

Almena charged others rent to live there, but the building’s actual owner was Chor Ng, who claimed to not know people were living there.

Almena, 47, was charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in connection with the inferno, along with the warehouse creative director Max Harris, 27. They are both in custody at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin. They have yet to enter pleas to the charges.

Copyright 2017 San Francisco Chronicle