SAN FRANCISCO — The founder of a ramshackle Oakland artists’ colony where dozens of people burned to death saw himself as a kind of guru and loved to surround himself with followers but showed chilling disregard for their well-being, according to relatives, neighbors and acquaintances.
Derick Ion Almena, 46, leased and operated the cluttered warehouse where fire erupted Friday night during a dance party, leaving at least 36 people dead in the nation’s most lethal building fire in over a decade. In his first interview since the fire, Almena told San Jose television station KNTV that he felt himself to be like a grandfather to all the young artists who had lived in the warehouse with his family,
Neighbors and occupants of the building said he had illegally carved it into rented living and studio space for artists, calling it the Satya Yuga collective. On Monday, prosecutors watched over the scene to preserve evidence as bodies were pulled from the blackened ruins. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said that if prosecutors believe criminal charges are warranted, charges could range from involuntary manslaughter to murder.
Acquaintances painted a devastating portrait of Almena and his longtime partner, Micah Allison.
“Honestly, I don’t think he is capable of feeling any kind of remorse or guilt,” said Allison’s father, Michael Allison of Portland, Oregon. “I’ve never seen him ever really care about anyone else.”
He described the couple as users of methamphetamine, heroin and crack and said their three young children were taken away from them by social service authorities for several months beginning last year. The youngsters were found hungry, infested with lice and ill-clothed, he said.
Michael Allison recalled Almena and Micah overcome with laughter once when they told of a fire-breather accidentally setting himself on fire at one of their many parties at the building, which was widely known as the Ghost Ship.
Almena “surrounds himself with people who are going to treat him like he’s some sort of guru,” said Danielle Boudreaux, who said she was a friend of the couple for eight years. “He enjoyed having minions around to do his tasks for him and help build this great — he thinks he’s building this artistic empire.”
On Monday, Almena said the couple was sorry for all those who lost loved ones in the fire.
“I gladly would give my entire life of fortune, of wealth of experience again and again and again, and I say this to you and I say this to the camera and to whoever is watching me that I surrender everything,” Almena said, with Micah Allison by his side.
In a Facebook post hours after the fire, he made no mention of the deaths, drawing criticism online and from people who knew him for perceived callousness. “Everything I worked so hard for is gone,” he wrote then, while noting that his partner and their children had been safe at a hotel during the blaze.
Survivors recounted having to struggle to escape the burning warehouse, where many of the victims were on a makeshift second floor served by a rickety staircase of wooden pallets. Visitors described the structure as a warren of scrap wood, sofas, old pianos and electrical cables.
Investigators have declined to say whether they believe Almena or the building’s owner bear any responsibility in the deaths.
Oakland building inspectors had opened an investigation into the warehouse last month. Acquaintances and local authorities described repeatedly confronting Almena about what they saw as unsafe and unsanitary conditions for his children and others living there.
Noel Gallo, a city councilman who lives a block from the warehouse, said Almena essentially told authorities to “mind their own business.”
“He had an attitude,” Gallo said. “A big attitude.”
Almena is on probation until 2019 after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property. A former landlord accused him of stealing her Airstream trailer.
The pair was part of an alternative scene in California that revolved around Burning Man and other festivals, music, a broad spirituality and drugs, acquaintances said.
Neighbors and colleagues said the family moved into the building in east Oakland’s former industrial Fruitvale neighborhood in late 2012 or early 2013 and quickly began leasing space in it to others. They threw frequent parties open to the public, for fees collected at the door, acquaintances said.
Neighbor Phyllis Waukazoo said her family befriended the couple’s oldest daughter, now 12 or 13, when they realized how neglected the children were. The girl would stay with them during the frequent parties at the warehouse, and Waukazoo’s family would make a point of feeding her.
“We noticed, oh, my God, she was hungry!” Waukazoo said. When the girl took Waukazoo on a tour of the warehouse, Waukazoo saw that the place had no kitchen and that the family and tenants apparently shared one bathroom, where they used a hose to shower.
Almena previously worked as a marijuana grower in Northern California’s Mendocino County, Michael Allison said. Almena would make himself out to be the man in charge of his fellow pot workers and managed to avoid work, Allison said.
“He was able to cast a spell on someone in a weird way that I just do not understand,” Allison said. He described his daughter as passive and easily swayed by Almena.
He recalled both his daughter and Almena laughing over another episode in which partygoers at one of their gatherings trashed a social hall by flinging cans of paint on walls and furniture.
A few years ago, Micah Allison’s family talked her into entering drug rehab, only to have Almena persuade her to leave again, her father said.
Some who knew the couple were bitter at their escape.
“I hope the same thing happens to them that happened to those people,” said artist Shelly Mack, who said she rented living space in the warehouse two years ago from the couple. She said they knew it was dangerous: “They profited on this. And never spent a dime on anything but partying.”