OAKLAND, Calif. -- The founder of a communal living space in a San Francisco Bay Area warehouse where a fire killed 36 people more than two years ago took to the stand in his trial Monday, teary-eyed and subdued as he talked about his feelings but also animated and rambling when asked about his art and clashes with the landlord.
Derick Almena, 49, was dressed in a dark suit and no tie, his long hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. He spoke haltingly at first, and only shook his head when his attorney Tony Serra opened by asking him how he was doing. Serra asked him if he felt responsible for the Dec. 2, 2016, fire that ripped through an artist live-work space in Oakland during an electronic music concert.
"I built something. I dreamed something, I invited, I attracted beautiful people into my space, and I'm responsible for having this idea," Almena said.
Serra asked if he felt remorse.
"I couldn't put into words how I feel," Almena said, adding. "I feel death."
Almena is accused of illegally converting the so-called Ghost Ship warehouse into the communal living space and faces 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter along with co-defendant Max Harris, 29.
Prosecutors allege that Almena stuffed the warehouse full of highly flammable furniture, rugs and other material, making it nearly impossible for party attendees to escape. They say he failed to provide smoke detectors, fire alarms, sprinklers and other required safety equipment and that Harris helped Almena convert the warehouse, collect rent and schedule concerts.
Both defendants pleaded no contest to 36 counts of manslaughter last summer. But a judge scuttled the plea deal they had worked out after victims' families objected to their proposed sentences as too lenient. The judge said that Almena failed to show remorse.
Almena told the victims' families at the time that he should have died in the fire and that he was "guilty for believing we were safe."
On Monday, in response to questioning from his attorney, Almena described himself as a young comic book fan who grew up in a violent and gang-riddled Los Angeles. He took to photography and eventually traveled the world to work and display his art.
Almena testified that he and his wife rented the warehouse to gather things they had collected from their world travels in one place. They lived there with their three children and considered the warehouse to be a way of giving back to the artists' community.
Almena's wife and three children were staying at a hotel the night of the fire.
"I believed it was safe, and I was told it was safe," he testified. He was not asked to explain who told him it was safe.
Family of the victims packed one side of the courtroom, which was also filled with reporters. Grace Lovio, whose partner Jason McCarty died in the fire, said she found Almena's testimony to be "performative."
Lovio was disturbed that Almena's attorney chose to show jurors his photographs when so many of the people who died were also creative.
"My partner Jason was an extremely talented artist," she said. "We don't see his art up there."
Almena testified he did not rent the property with the intention of moving in, but he said he could not prevent artists from sleeping there. He eventually moved his family in, and he said he was shocked to find the building lacked water and electricity.
Almena said the owner tricked him into a lease and failed to make the necessary upgrades to get the building up to code.
The owner of the building has not been charged and has not spoken about the fire.
Federal fire officials traced the origin of the fire to a back corner of the ground floor of the warehouse but did not determine a cause.
The men could face up to 36 years each if convicted on all counts.