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Oakland investigators visited Ghost Ship dozens of times before fire that killed 36, city records show

Los Angeles Times logo Los Angeles Times 2/9/2017 Phil Willon
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In the years before a fire in December killed 36 people at the Ghost Ship, Oakland city officials visited the warehouse numerous times and investigated at least 10 code enforcement complaints, according to records released Wednesday by the city.

Despite mounting evidence that the warehouse posed safety problems and was illegally converted with residential units and a music venue, the city never moved to shut down the Ghost Ship, the documents show.

The release of the records, requested by The Times and other media outlets, comes amid criticism of what many consider Oakland's lax enforcement of conditions at the Ghost Ship and other converted warehouses around the city.

In March 2015, an Oakland police officer responded to a report of an illegal rave being held at the Ghost Ship, with alcohol and drug sales. In his report, the officer said he did not enter the warehouse or issue any citations. Police were called back to the scene later after receiving a complaint that  "there were several subjects inside his warehouse refusing to leave." 

The new details heightened anger by residents and some victims' families about the city's handling of the warehouse.

David Gregory of South San Francisco, whose 20-year-old daughter Michela died in the fire, said the records Tuesday provided clear evidence of the city's failure.

"I'm outraged. I'm outraged that nothing was done for all these years and this was allowed to happen. Put yourself in my shoes. What if it was your 20-year-old daughter, or your sister or your loved one," Gregory said. "The more you learn about it, the more you realize that this shouldn't have happened."

Gregory's daughter was an honor roll student at San Francisco State and had gone to the concert at the warehouse with her boyfriend, Alex Vega, who also died in the fire.

The city received an illegal housing complaint at the address of the vacant lot adjacent to the warehouse that was investigated just two weeks before the fire. A code inspector who went to the scene, however, said he could not "see if there is an illegal building from the sidewalk," and claimed he could not gain entry to the warehouse. City files show he cited the building's owner, Chor N. Ng, for the condition of the sidewalk and front yard.

The investigation continues on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 following a warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS) © Francine Orr-Los Angeles Times-TNS The investigation continues on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016 following a warehouse fire in Oakland, Calif. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

According to the records, it does not appear that city inspectors took stock of the crumbling conditions inside the warehouse until after the blaze. Weeks after coroner's officials removed the bodies from the building's charred husk, code enforcement inspectors returned and issued new citations against Ng.

Ng was notified Dec. 22 of the need to remove debris and repair walls, the roof and ceiling. She also was cited, for the first time, for "unapproved alterations" throughout the building.

"There are sleeping rooms created on the second floor as well as a kitchen," the inspector wrote. "There are new partition walls, makeshift paint booth toilet stalls etc.," he wrote.

The same inspector noted "unapproved alterations/additions/connections made to the electrical system." He cited "exposed and unsafe wiring, fixtures, new electrical panels and circuits etc" throughout the building.

The file includes photos of unpermitted electrical junction boxes with a web of ad hoc wiring extending from one.

Oakland officials released some records but withheld others that it considers relevant to the criminal investigation of the Dec. 2 fire, one of the worst in modern California history. The fire occurred during an illegal concert. Many of the files are heavily redacted. 

The warehouse and an adjacent vacant lot were the subject of 10 code enforcement complaints and 39 code enforcement inspections since 2004, city records showed. The most recent inspection, in November 2016, a month before the fire, was focused on the vacant lot.

Tenants who had businesses on the International Boulevard side of the building have complained of blocked fire exits and frequent electrical outages and short circuits, including incidents when light fixtures sparked. One salon owner told The Times that she had been told by a city inspector to not complain or the building might be closed and jobs would be lost.

City records show the building has been the subject of 23 code enforcement inspections and 16 visits by fire inspectors since 1999, the most recent in 2016.

But the city said it could find no records of commercial inspections of the Ghost Ship warehouse by the Oakland fire department. It said those inspections, required for commercial spaces, would have been "elective."

Fire marshal Miguel Trujillo had a full history of fire inspections at the warehouse and adjacent property on Oakland City Administrator Sabrina Landreth's desk within two days of the fire, containing 23 pages. The city took three months to release those records.

While city code enforcement inspectors never went inside the warehouse, records show they did talk to the "tenant" in 2014 as they tried to require Ng and her daughter to remove discarded furniture, pallets and other debris overflowing onto and blocking the sidewalk in front.

Former residents said the pile was created by Ghost Ship operator Derick Ion Almena, and was an extension of the collected chaos stored inside the building. After four months, the blight case was closed by an inspector and reopened the next day under a new file number. It took another three months for the city to report "most" of the material had been removed. 

Oakland police responded to a combined 99 calls on the immediate block where the Ghost Ship was located, including 16 for the building's specific address. 

In a June 2015 report, police responded to a call about a person stabbed in the vacant lot next to the warehouse. The responding officer reported that the victim was stabbed by the rear gate to the open lot property, and may have taken refuge inside the Ghost Ship.

"She is locked in the warehouse hiding from the suspect(etc)," the call log noted.

The woman refused to cooperate with police, citing a fear of retribution, the records indicate, and the woman's injuries were described as minor. The records do not say whether officers entered the warehouse to speak to the victim.

The files also include an email written by a city resident lamenting that code inspectors checking on complaints of trash and illegal housing at the Ghost Ship had repeatedly walked away after being refused entrance to the building.

"Had it not been ignored, while we can't predict the outcome of that effort, we clearly now know what can happen if it doesn't get follow-thru and resolution," wrote the staffer, whose name was redacted.

On Tuesday, officials confirmed that Oakland Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed, whose department has come under criticism for what many consider lax inspection at the Ghost Ship, has taken a leave from her position

Oakland officials refused to provide details about Reed's leave. A city spokesman said Deputy Chief Darin White had been appointed acting fire chief.

Oakland officials have faced criticism for a slow response to questions about the city's inspection history and whether it dropped the ball when it came to the Ghost Ship. 

"I strongly believe that sunshine helps to light the path forward," Mayor Libby Schaaf said in a statement with the release of the documents. "I recognize the media and others have been frustrated by the time it has taken to assemble these documents from many different departments because we were determined to cast a wide net to provide all relevant information and take an exhaustive look at not just the warehouse, but also the immediately adjacent properties. Transparency is critical. Our impacted community deserves to know all the facts about this tragedy."

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer James Queally in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

richard.winton@latimes.com

@lacrimes

paige.stjohn@latimes.com

@paigestjohn

phil.willon@latimes.com

@philwillon

UPDATES:

2:40 p.m.: This post was updated with additional information from the records released by the city of Oakland.

This post was first published at 12 p.m.

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