A man who lived across the street from the Oakland warehouse where a fire killed 36 people last Friday night says he made dozens of calls over more than a year to alert police to noise, blight and illegal residency at the property, all to no apparent effect.
The blaze swept through the building, converted into a combination communal residence and event hall, during a dance party late Friday night.
Ben Acevedo said he and his family initially reached out to the people at the 31st Avenue warehouse, which came to be known as the Ghost Ship or Satya Yuga, shortly after they moved to a home across the street in November 2013.
Acevedo arrived on the block just a few months after Derick Ion Almena and his wife, Micah Allison, began leasing the two-story structure.
“The downstairs was just chock-full of junk,” he said. “There were three caravans [house trailers] at the time.”
That first meeting with his new neighbors was a little uncomfortable, Acevedo said, and soon, the consistent late-night disturbances from the building became unbearable.
“It would actually wake our babies,” Acevedo said. He said he went over a couple of times to ask his neighbors to quiet down. Their responses were “less than aggressive but less than polite,” he said.
Then he began calling police, first 911, then once he became more familiar with the system, the Oakland Police Department’s non-emergency phone number. He said he called “two or three times a week” for most of the 16 months he lived on the block, estimating between 50 and 60 total calls.
“We’d call at 10:30, call again at midnight, call again at 2 o’clock,” he said. “A couple of times we got responses, but it was at like 5:30 [a.m.]”
KQED requested police “call for service” logs and incident reports related to the Ghost Ship property from the Oakland Police Department. We’ve so far received no response. The Police Department, City and Mayor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Acevedo’s statements.
Acevedo, who moved in April 2015, said he understood that there was little the police officers who showed up hours after he called could do, but they encouraged him to continue reporting.
“The beat cops were really nice about it,” he said. “They were like ‘Keep calling, keep making a record about this. We can’t get to all of these but your calls are logged by the dispatcher. Keep doing this,'” Acevedo said.
“Early into 2014 we said that it was an illegal residence in talking with the police and whatnot,” he recalled. “Their response was, ‘Well, because you say that — are you the building owner? Do you know that for a fact?'”
Since the fire, the building’s intended use has become clear. It was permitted as a warehouse, and received no city permit for either living spaces or events.
But it became, according to the Satya Yuga Facebook page:
An unprecedented fusion of earth home bomb bunker helter skelter spelunker shelters and indonesian straw huts rolling into valleys and down alleys … Seeking all shamanic rattlesnake sexy jungle jazz hobo gunslingers looking for a space to house gear, use studio, develop next level Shaolin discipline after driving your taxi cab late at night, build fusion earth home bomb bunker spelunker shelters, and plant herbaceous colonies in the open sun & air.
We are a collective of musicians, painters, woodworkers, hot dog vendors, scrappers, boutique designers and lingerie models.
Acevedo says he never called the Planning and Building Department about the warehouse. But others did, several times in 2014 and then again last month.
In October 2014, a city inspector found no violations after the department got a complaint about construction taking place at the warehouse without permits.
Last month, a city inspector responded to two complaints: one concerning an accumulation of garbage in the vacant lot adjacent to the warehouse building and a second concerning an “illegal interior building structure.”
The inspector visited the property on Nov. 17 and verified the garbage complaint. But the inspector, who reportedly knocked on the warehouse door and got no answer, did not enter the building to check on the illegal structure complaint.
“It blows my mind that city inspectors went there four times and never stepped into the building,” Acevedo said. “It was like my worst fears living in that house for years were realized, all over the TV, all over social media. It was devastating that nothing was done and these people died horrifically.”
Acevedo wasn’t the only one concerned about the conditions of the Ghost Ship.
A neighbor and former friend of Almena and Allison, Danielle Boudreaux, said it was part of the reason she contacted the couples’ families and facilitated getting Allison away from Almena and into rehab and the couples’ three children out of the Ghost Ship.
She described the warehouse as chaotic and “constantly in flux” when she visited — from its inception in early 2013 until she intervened with concern for the children in 2015. Dozens of people made their homes in a darkened “indoor RV park” on the first floor, among piles of collected wood and other junk.
Almena and Allison lived on the second floor on a mezzanine accessed most often by a shoddy homemade staircase. Sections were sloped planks with pieces of wood nailed onto them for footholds, Boudreaux said.
“You could not have multiple people on there,” Boudreaux said. “It was held up by ropes, you know.”
She said she didn’t notice a safer staircase in the back of the building until her third or fourth visit, and people unfamiliar with the “Ghost Ship” also likely would not have known about it.
“Having been the one who spoke out and said this is dangerous, this is not safe and then did what I could for the kids, I feel a tremendous weight of responsibility and guilt that I didn’t push my efforts further,” Boudreaux said.
Allison’s split from Almena in early 2015 was short-lived. Their children stayed with Almena’s family until June 2016, Boudreaux said. She said she spoke to their youngest child shortly after the split.
“He got on the phone and he said ‘I love you,’ and I said ‘I love you too,’ and he said, ‘Thank you for getting us out of the scary warehouse.’ I’ll take those words to my grave. That kid knew, at 3 years old, he knew that that was not, it wasn’t OK.”
But he wouldn’t get out of the place permanently and was reunited with his parents in the warehouse last June. Boudreaux says she believes the building’s owner, Chor Nar Siu Ng, must have known people were living in the warehouse building.
“Micah [Allison] told me, ‘We’re not supposed to live here but the landlord doesn’t care,'” Boudreaux said. “The landlord knew. There’s no way you’re going to own a building that has 20 people living in it — it’s 24/7 and there’s stuff out on the street, and all the time the city was putting notice that they needed to get stuff off the street. They were blocking the sidewalks. There is no way in this world that they didn’t know. They didn’t care to know if they didn’t know.”
Attempts to reach Ng were unsuccessful, but her daughter recently told the Los Angeles Times that they were certain no one lived in the space.
Almena, through Allison, declined a request to speak with KQED. He expressed sorrow in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday morning.
Both Boudreaux and Acevedo said they knew of communal art spaces that, while they may be illegal, make safety a priority, and neither wants those spaces shut down.
But Acevedo added that something’s got to be done to make such quarters safer. He said he feels there is plenty of blame to go around for the Ghost Ship tragedy.
“I’m livid at Derick for causing this,” Acevedo said. “I’m livid at the residents that lived there under those conditions knowing how dangerous it was and yet still invited people into their home. I’m livid at the city for ignoring this.”
He added: “This is not about attacking people’s art or their ability to find housing. This is about basic public safety.”