Oakland police, building inspectors repeatedly visited ‘Ghost Ship’ warehouse before fire

City of Oakland/Courtesy

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More than 600 pages of recently released records regarding the Oakland “Ghost Ship” warehouse and associated properties reveal that Oakland city officials were alerted to unsafe conditions in and around the building numerous times over the past 13 years.

The “Ghost Ship” warehouse — located at 1315 31st Ave. — was the site of what has been called the deadliest structure fire in Oakland’s history, which killed a total of 36 people in December 2016, including eight who either lived, worked or studied in Berkeley. Relatives of UC Berkeley alumnus Griffin Madden, one of the fire victims, have since filed lawsuits against several people associated with the “Ghost Ship” warehouse — including the city of Oakland, the warehouse owner and the warehouse managers.

The City of Oakland Planning and Building Department records for the “Ghost Ship” property show that from 2005 to 2014, there were three code enforcement complaints and five code enforcement inspections associated with the building. The records further reveal that from 2004 to 2016, the building’s adjacent lot received seven complaints and 34 inspections. The complaints for the lot pertained to a number of issues, including parking, tires, inoperable vehicles, trash and debris, rodent issues and residential use.

City records from the Oakland Police Department include reports of illicit events at the location as well as complaints from neighbors alleging that there were individuals illegally living in the warehouse, which was not zoned for residential use. There were dozens of calls for service at the building and its surrounding properties from 2007 to Dec. 1, 2016.

In March 2015, police responded to reports of “an illegal rave with drug and alcohol sales,” according to Oakland city records. Police also visited the location and associated properties repeatedly over the last decade, including one of a report of assault and one of an attempted rape.

OPD recorded an instance in December 2014 in which the “landlord” of the building, whose name is redacted, allegedly attacked one of his residents who was short on rent money.

It is unclear whether the document’s use of the word “landlord” refers to the building’s owner or one of its managers. After the fire, several individuals who knew Derick Almena, one of the building’s managers, spoke to media outlets about his alleged “erratic” behavior and drug use.

The police report states that the “landlord” jumped onto his resident’s desk asking for rent and began cursing and yelling at him.

“It shows that the city, the police and fire department knew that these activities were going on in this warehouse,” said Mary Alexander, an attorney representing the Madden family in their lawsuit. “The city should have red-tagged this building and stopped this activity and made sure it was safe.”

According to a May 2015 citizen complaint, a neighbor called the police to report that a resident of the “Ghost Ship” property, whose name is also redacted, had allegedly vandalized the front of his building with red paint “in a drug-fueled delusionary rage.” The neighbor further alleged that the resident was a user of methamphetamine who illegally resided in the building and collected stolen vehicles.

In another OPD report, Officer Nikola Dokic wrote that he spoke with the owner of a neighboring auto shop, whom he had “met several times before regarding an issue involving a number of people who reside in the work shops next to his.”

“OPD officers are not trained to be building inspectors,” Oakland city officials said in an email. “Their job is to serve and protect, and in the instances where officers visited the warehouse at 1315 31st Ave., they were on-site to deal specifically with the rave and potentially dangerous activities.”

Alexander, however, alleged that these instances show that the police and fire department were “turning a blind eye” to the unsafe conditions at the “Ghost Ship” warehouse.

“They should be trained. Those people are out there in the community,” Alexander said. “You don’t have to be a fire inspector to know that what was in there was a dangerous maze of furniture and RVs and rickety wooden stairs.”

Alexander added that she hopes the Madden family’s lawsuit will prevent such a tragedy from occurring again.

The defense team for Almena released a report Jan. 23 alleging that the fire started not in the “Ghost Ship” warehouse but in an adjacent building. In a Thursday press release, Almena’s defense team — consisting of attorneys Jeffrey Krasnoff, Kyndra Miller and Tony Serra — criticized the coordination and management of the Oakland Fire Department on the night of the fire, alleging that OFD did not respond to the fire quickly enough.

Oakland officials emphasized in their emailed statement that they are working to update their protocols to ensure greater safety.

“We know that questions remain and that our work is not done,” the city of Oakland said in the statement. “We will continue to comb through our records to find the answers that our city deserves.”

Contact Jessica Lynn and Harini Shyamsundar at [email protected].