OAKLAND (KPIX 5) — The mother of a Ghost Ship Fire victim spoke out in anger Tuesday over the testimony of Derick Almena, claiming what he said on the stand was full of fabrications.
Colleen Dolan lost her daughter Chelsea in the fatal Oakland warehouse fire on December 1, 2016, one of 36 people who died in the terrible blaze. She did not hold back when speaking about Almena and his testimony outside the courthouse Tuesday.
“Because he is such a weasel,” said Dolan with a bitter laugh. “He speaks around his answers.”
She recalled encountering Almena outside of the Ghost Ship warehouse on the night of December 1.
“I saw him the night of the fire. I saw him at 3 o’clock in the morning ride up on a child’s bike, screaming at the top of his lungs the F-word,” remembered Dolan. “And then he said, ‘All my stuff!’ While I’m watching the building burn and my daughter is trapped inside. All her friends are trapped inside, and he’s worried about his stuff. It makes me sick.”
When asked if she thinks of that when she listens to Almena on the stand, Dolan said, “I think of that day and night. I think of him making excuses.”
Dolan said she refuses to buy Almena’s sympathy act on the stand. When asked if she thought the tears Almena shed on the stand during his first day of testimony were crocodile tears, she replied, “Oh Jeez! Crocodile is being generous. He is such a poor actor. He doesn’t know how to fake it very well. Children fake tears better than he does. And I work with children. And I’ve seen them when they go, ‘Oh! Boo hoo!'”
On Tuesday morning, Almena offered more testimony, pointing an accusing finger at the city Oakland for the fatal warehouse fire.
To start his first full day on the stand in the trial, Almena blamed city officials for not making sure the warehouse was safe.
The master tenant of the Ghost Ship warehouse said city officials including the Oakland Fire Department, the Oakland Police Department and child protective services visited and inspected the warehouse 50 times from July 10, 2014 to the night before the fatal fire on December 1, 2016.
He said 33 people from the city and state stepped inside the warehouse and never told him it was dangerous.
Almena additionally testified that prosecution witnesses lied to protect themselves or the agencies they work for during their testimony in the trial.
Almena alleged that Oakland police Officer Bryant Ocampo lied on Monday when he testified that he didn’t ask that Almena be given special police protection after Almena drove an 18-year-old victim of a shooting at a Wendy’s restaurant near the warehouse on July 10, 2014, to Highland Hospital, where she later died.
Almena said Tuesday that he feared that the suspects in the shooting, which was believed to be gang-related, might retaliate against him and his family because they were witnesses and said Ocampo came by the warehouse “all the time” after the shooting to make sure they were safe.
When asked by his lawyer Tony Serra why Ocampo would lie, Serra said, “He’s protecting something.”
Almena also accused former Oakland Acting Assistant Fire Marshal Maria Sabatini and Fire Capt. George Freelen of lying when they testified that they didn’t go inside the warehouse when they investigated an arson fire on a couch on the sidewalk outside the building on Sept. 26, 2014.
Almena said, “Of course they’re denying” that they went inside the warehouse.
The issue of whether firefighters, police officers and other government officials toured the building before the fire is important because defense lawyers for Almena and Ghost Ship creative director Max Harris, 29, who faces the same charges, say authorities who visited the building never told the people who lived there that they thought it was unsafe or told them to make changes to bring it up to code.
Almena also alleged that the words of Nicholas Bouchard, who co-signed the lease for the 10,000-square-foot-building with him on Nov. 10, 2013, were “all lies” when Bouchard testified that Almena laughed him off when he told Almena in a meeting several weeks later that the building should be brought up to code.
Almena said the meeting “didn’t happen” the way that Bouchard described it.
Almena said he relied on representations in an email that landlord Eva Ng sent him shortly before he signed a lease for the building on Nov. 10, 2013.
Almena said Ng, who owns the building with her mother Chor and brother Kai, told him in the email that the 10,000-square-foot-building could be used for building studios, offices and residences.
Almena said he didn’t learn until his preliminary hearing in December 2017 that “the building had been registered for 71 years for storage only.”
Almena said, “I didn’t know that at all. I was deceived 100 percent.”
However, Almena admitted under cross-examination by Alameda County prosecutor Autrey James that he didn’t read a lengthy attachment to Ng’s email that clearly explained what the building could be used for.
Almena also admitted that he misspoke to investigators after he was arrested in June 2017 when he said he had read all of the lease’s documents.
Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra objected to James’ line of questioning and shouted that the prosecutor “is harassing my client!” when James approached Almena to have him review the lease documents.
Alameda County prosecutors claim Almena and Harris are criminally responsible for the blaze because the partygoers didn’t have the time or opportunity to escape the blaze since the warehouse didn’t have important safeguards, such as fire sprinklers, smoke alarms and lighted exit signs.
Prosecutors also allege that Almena and Harris violated the terms of the warehouse’s lease, which only called for it to be used as a warehouse for an artists’ collective by turning it into a living space for up to 25 people and hosting underground music parties there.
Almena estimated Tuesday that 100 government officials went inside the warehouse between 2014 and the night of the fire and none of them told him that he had to make the building safer, get permits for various upgrades or issued eviction notices.
Almena claims he also tried getting his landlord to make the Ghost Ship a safer space. He said he asked for a sprinkler system, a side door and for the bars to be removed from the windows of the building.
Almena states his landlord refused and that there was only so much he could do himself.
Almena seemed more composed to start Tuesday morning’s court proceedings.
He said he believed the warehouse was safe when he signed the lease, but was tricked and misled by the landlord.
Last year in late August, the judge tossed Almena’s plea deal, saying he did not show true remorse.
Almena’s lawyer Tony Serra said that this is his client being genuine.
“And he is weeping! He is not a tough guy. He is not acting,” Serra said outside of the courtroom. “He is an artist and this has destroyed him, as well as everyone else.”
Almena will continue to testify Tuesday afternoon and is expected to stay on the stand all week. James will continue cross-examining Almena when the trial resumes on Wednesday.
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