After his seasonal greeting-card gig ended in early January 2015, Harris was broke but happy. He hoped to devote himself full time to his art practice. But mostly he got pulled into Almena’s vortex. Almena, so monomaniacally obsessed with his warehouse that he missed his brother’s funeral, flew into rages and ripped down people’s studio walls if they didn’t conform to his aesthetic. He held autocratic meetings of the collective, dispensing wrath and love. “There is something about him that can make you feel special,” Danielle Boudreaux, then a friend of Almena’s, said, describing his power. “You are the most important person at this party right now. You have my back. You are my right hand. All this is because of us, me and you — we did this.” Then he would yank his affections away. He broke you down and filled you up — often in public. “His working behavioral model for keeping control of the collective seemed to be: ‘If you step out of line in front of 15 people, and I make you feel stupid, you’re going to be quiet, you’re going to be shut down and then maybe in a couple hours, I’m going to make you feel like the most important person in the room, so everybody brings you back into the fold,’?” Boudreaux said.
The older and more stable Satya Yugans resisted Almena’s mind games. Next door to Harris lived Nikki Kelber, now 46, who made luscious feather earrings and leather jewelry and whom Harris referred to as Martha Yuga, a riff on Martha Stewart, because her space was always so nice. She had a cabinet full of glassware. She hung her pots from the wall. She also had boundaries. “I just tried to keep to myself and do my own thing,” she said.
Yet Harris was a willing acolyte. Soon Almena — who saw part of his job as inspiring others to create, with a firm hand if necessary — started making up elaborate projects with ludicrous deadlines and demanding that Harris work all night to get them done. Lay these bricks in the garden. Pick these bricks up. Take all the spindles off the backs of all these wooden chairs. According to several residents, Almena’s dedication to building and rebuilding his ever-more-layered I Spy pastiche was increasingly fueled by drugs. “Derick and I got into some unhealthy practices,” Allison said. “At first it was like, ‘Let’s get this done,’ and then it got out of control.”
If Harris resisted Almena’s commands to work through the night, Almena berated him, calling Harris degrading names. Occasionally, people who lived at Satya Yuga told me, Almena spoke to Harris in a sharp German accent, pretending that Harris, whose mother was Jewish, was his Jew, his slave. Harris insisted to me that Almena meant this as a joke. But others in the community, observing how Almena humiliated Harris, did not find it funny. “It got to the point,” Harris said, “where some people had even thrown around the words Stockholm syndrome.”
Harris first considered leaving the collective in the fall of 2015, when they attended a music festival called Symbiosis Gathering. That year, the event took place at a reservoir in the high-desert foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Shortly after the Satya Yugans arrived, Almena set them to work constructing an ornate Balinese templelike structure, from which they were to sell chai tea. His mood was horrible. Children and Family Services still had his children. In the desert, he erupted in violent outbursts over things no one could control, like the wind knocking over the temple walls. Harris said to himself, “I’m done with this guy.”
But after Harris returned to Oakland, he became more enmeshed than ever as Harris and Almena agreed that Harris would live at Satya Yuga rent-free in exchange for helping out. From then on, at Ghost Ship, Harris was on call 24 hours a day unclogging toilets, mopping, mediating tenant disputes, collecting rent money (and then taking that rent to the bank so that Almena didn’t blow it). He also communicated with the building’s landlords, Chor and Kai Ng, who owned some 10 buildings in Oakland, including a Vietnamese restaurant, a bakery and a grocery. Still, Almena’s verbal abuse continued and, Harris says, “I would just kind of keep my mouth shut and take it.”
He believed this was the path of deepest compassion. Anger, destruction and addiction came from pain — a dynamic Harris understood well from his own father, who turned up with no place to go at Harris’s first college apartment. In the warehouse, if Almena was acting paranoid and fuming, Harris just dropped whatever he was doing to carry some ridiculous pile of junk from Almena’s van to the yard or carry that same ridiculous pile of junk from the yard to the dumpster. He figured, if he just did what Almena said, maybe Almena would calm down, find his banjo, settle into one of the many threadbare couches upstairs and fall asleep for the first time in days. When Almena was really bad off, gnashing and foaming at the mouth, Harris told me, he would cook for him, bring him cigarettes and speak to him sweetly.
Eyes immediately turned to Almena, who at first seemed not to understand the gravity of the situation. Hours after the tragedy, even before the fire was fully extinguished, Almena posted on Facebook: “Confirmed. Everything I worked so hard for is gone.”
Early Monday morning, he stood in the predawn darkness on the corner of 31st and International for a live interview with the “Today” show. His arty, charismatic guru aesthetic was still intact — his fedora a little too dashing on what should have been a deeply bowed head.
Matt Lauer said good morning, then dispensed with the niceties.
Lauer: “Mr. Almena, let me ask you a couple of questions. Thirty-six lives were lost in that building over the weekend. The family members of those who were lost want answers. ... Are you the man who should be held accountable?”
Almena: “... What am I going to say to that? Should I be held accountable? I can barely stand here right now.”
Lauer: “It’s a fair question, Mr. Almena. Obviously there were some conditions in that building that may have led to a dangerous situation and led to what happened there.”
Almena: “I laid my body down there every night. We laid our bodies down there. We put our children to bed there every night. We made music. We created art. ...”
Lauer: “Are you worried that you will be charged?”
Almena: “I would rather get on the floor and be trampled by the parents! I’d rather let them tear at my flesh than answer these ridiculous questions.”
Lauer: “Mr. Almena —”
Almena: “I’m so sorry. I’m incredibly sorry. What do you want me to say? I’m not going to answer these questions.”
Lauer: “Then we’ll end the interview there, Mr. Almena.”
On Dec. 6, 2017, a year and four days after the deadly fire, preliminary hearings began. Testimony lasted six days, the last of which was Harris’s 28th birthday. Each morning, Almena and Harris arrived at Superior Court of Alameda County, in downtown Oakland, shackled in their striped prison jumpsuits. On the second day, a young man named Nicholas Bouchard took the stand. He testified that Almena persuaded him to co-sign the Ghost Ship lease. Bouchard said he built festival stages with Almena and lived with him on a pot farm in the Santa Cruz mountains — one of the many young men in Almena’s orbit who “had issues with our father figures or father,” Bouchard recalled.
A couple of weeks after signing the Ghost Ship lease, Bouchard arrived at the warehouse one day to find a huge hole had been cut in the second-story floor. Concerned, he told his mother, and together they prepared for a meeting with Almena to discuss how to make safe, legal changes to the space. Almena arrived on the appointed day, two hours late; he scoffed at Kathleen Bouchard’s meticulous mind-set and ignored her. She then dedicated herself to maternal arm-twisting until her son cut ties with Almena. “It had a very, very dark side to it,” she said in court about her son’s relationship to Almena, “and my primary concern was to make sure my child was O.K.”
Over the six days of hearings, the state compelled a series of Satya Yugans to testify. Many of them remained so committed to their counterculture ideals that they didn’t really believe in the court system and its method of enacting justice. A gulf in understanding opened in the courtroom. Between the outré artists and the gray-suited custodians of law, there was almost no shared language. What was a family? What was music and what was noise (and was calling your music “noise” an insult)? Was your real name the name your parents gave you or the one bestowed on you by your friends? What qualified as a home? What did it mean to say something was beautiful?
On the stand, José Avalos tried to explain Ghost Ship’s appeal. Most shared living spaces in Oakland, even if you could afford the rent, “they don’t really want to see you,” he said. They don’t love you. They don’t care. “They basically want you to be like an invisible being.” At Satya Yuga, Avalos said, “Derick just told me to just be me.”“Yes.”
“A place you could call home?”
“A place where you could be an artist?”
“Yes,” he said. “We were, like, caring people.”
He, and everyone else who took the stand, conceded that the warehouse seemed far from complying with Oakland’s building code. But the feeling among people who lived there was that arresting Harris made no sense. They found the prosecution’s idea that Harris held what the district attorney described as “a leadership position in the warehouse” manipulative, infuriating and absurd. About Almena, some testified that they were scared of him. Rodney Griffin, an electrician and former friend, called Almena a “narcissist.” Nicholas Bouchard described him as “in very subtle ways extremely emotionally manipulative.”
But they were clear about Harris. “You’re going to try to make him like he’s a commander, and it’s not real,” said Swan Vega (in the transcript, she’s identified by her given name, Leah). “This is just not correct.” Yes, Harris helped get the rent money to the bank. Yes, Harris coordinated with the music promoter. Yes, Harris cleaned the warehouse for the party. But Harris had no power. Everyone who lived in Satya Yuga knew that.
“He was like Cinderella,” Vega said. “Max was a servant’s heart. That’s what he was.”
Some of us had candid talks about these spaces–labyrinthian mazes which would be near impossible to escape if there were a fire. Sadly many felt like they were just supposed to accept it because they would be branded negatively if they were at all critical.
San Francisco, CADec. 13
My first impression of Ghost Ship was not like what is described in this piece. I had alarm bells going off in my head for the first hour I was in the building for an event, recognizing it for the tinderbox that it was. Eventually, I got used to the surroundings and stopped dwelling on a plan for how to get out with my friends in the event of a fire. I, like the thousands that went to Ghost Ship events before the fire, am lucky that I made it out safely. In the aftermath, we learned time and time again that there was 1 degree of separation or less between everyone I knew and someone that perished that night.
I've been to other, similar live/work artist spaces that exist under the Bay Area's live and let live culture and are necessary due to its extraordinarily high cost of living. They are part of the Bay's cultural fabric and people go to them willfully.
But none scared me to the extent that Ghost Ship did when I first entered the premises. This one was particularly egregious, as is tragically clear in retrospect.
Wishing peace to the loved ones of those that passed.
Corboy note: In an additional comment, Rob G added:Quote
San Francisco, CADec. 14
(If I may clarify, I intended to say my first impression was not like that of those interviewed in the story. I wasn't awestruck, I felt like I was on high alert.)
I'm an artist who lived in Oakland for 20 years.
I was also raised in a cult, so cult-like dynamics were easy to spot.
I have torn feelings for Max Harris, who seems like a sweet idealist, but also far-too passive. If he wants redemption, he must take a clear-eyed, head-on look at the dire consequences of his own lack of agency. My own childhood–and the trauma I experienced–was because of other people's passivity. The reality is there is an abject kind of cruelty to it. It's called Neglect.
In Oakland I recognized the culty dynamic in this particular corner of the art scene. I intentionally kept myself out of it. I was never comfortable with how it brandished the mantle of 'acceptance' as an excuse to mow-over individual boundaries. I was disturbed at the charismatic people who exploited situations for their own gain. I had conversations with artists and punks who lived in these warehouses–about the drama, the chaos, the lack of basic needs. Some of us had candid talks about these spaces–labyrinthian mazes which would be near impossible to escape if there were a fire. Sadly many felt like they were just supposed to accept it because they would be branded negatively if they were at all critical.
I have so much sadness in my heart for the people who were trapped that night, and for their families. I feel anger for those responsible, and for what and who enabled them. Yet still I have room for a tiny grain of empathy for this one hapless man who got so ensnared by a sociopath.
Over the years, the Express wrote several stories about Oakland’s underground warehouse scene — because it was special and vibrant. It was part of The Town’s identity.
But every time we wrote about the scene, we got angry calls, emails, and messages from artists, musicians, and other tenants who feared that our story would result in a city crackdown and evictions. People called us “traitors” and accused us of helping the city make them homeless.
Likewise, if city officials had ordered warehouse owners to bring their buildings up to code over the years, the outcry from the artist community would’ve been deafening. Tenants didn’t want to live in unsafe buildings, but they also realized that the cost of making them safe would’ve have made them unaffordable — and they could be quite vocal about that fact. Politically, the issue was an electric third rail in Oakland. No one wanted to touch it.
But artists and musicians also knew that their demands to be left alone came with considerable responsibilities: namely, to create and maintain spaces that didn’t unnecessarily put themselves and others in peril. And the vast majority of artists and musicians who lived in underground warehouse spaces during the past four decades in Oakland embraced this DIY ethic.
But not Almena. He knew he had created dangerous conditions in the Ghost Ship. In a recent jailhouse interview with KTVU
he admitted that, two months after he moved into the warehouse in November 2013, its electrical transformer blew and he jury-rigged electrical wiring from the building next door to power the Ghost Ship.
He then proceeded to fill the warehouse with elaborate — and highly flammable — wooden sculptures and other wooden pieces. According to the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, he also collected “recycled dry wood, such as fence boards, shingles, frames, [and] wooden sculptures” for his tenants to use for their living spaces in the warehouse. Plus, he built a narrow, ramshackle wooden staircase to the second floor. It was a disaster waiting to happen.
Looking at the lives of Derick Ion Almena and Micah Allison, the married couple who ran the Ghost Ship artist quasi-commune, is like gazing through a prism — there’s a different view from every angle.
In the days after the fire that killed 36 people during an electronic music event in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, friends, acquaintances, neighbors and members of the West Coast’s grieving alternative arts community have engaged in fierce battles to portray the couple in the light they think is deserved, and to defend the underground creative world they all inhabit.
Onetime collaborators and former friends who grew alienated from Almena have pointed to his unpredictable behavior and “darkness” in indictments charging him with neglect and a disregard for fire safety that cost three dozen people in the community their lives.
Others in those circles rallied around the couple, visiting them last week even as Almena and Allison dodged reporters after giving interviews to NBC News, which paid for their stay at a downtown Oakland hotel. Their allies call them talented artists who had a passion for creating a place to foster creativity, and said the collective of about 20 residents that they ran at the Ghost Ship warehouse since late 2013 was one of the few affordable safe spaces in the Bay Area for budding artists coming into their own.
On this side, they preach compassion.
“Derick, as erratic as he is, is not some monster,” said a friend, Isa Shisha, 45, who performed at the Ghost Ship in the past. “He grieves, hurts, loves, just like everybody else.”
On the other, they call for blood.
“Derick is manipulative, mean, scary,” said Shelley Mack, who in 2014 and 2015 rented one of the trailers that contributed to the end-to-end clutter of artists’ studios and living spaces in the warehouse. “He ran a death trap with bad wiring, fire danger, too much stuff everywhere, and then he threatened everybody who spoke up on anything.
“It was a horror house there, and he’s the reason for it.”
Almena and Allison have stayed out of the public eye since the NBC interviews, and in those they revealed little of their past. Their friends say they share an interest in travel, and collected art and artistic inspiration from trips to Bali, India and other far-flung lands.
Almena specialized in photography and henna-dye body art, but eventually became what he considered a “realms creator” — creating structures out of found objects, antiques and discarded material. He installed all manner of funky items at the Ghost Ship, including 12-foot-tall Balinese statues scattered around the warehouse’s two levels, Shisha said.
Allison, 40, danced, taught archery and “created art through everything she touched,” Shisha said, all while being “one bad-ass mama who fiercely protects” the couple’s three young children.
They’re “true soulmates” who have been “together forever,” Shisha said.
Forever began about 17 years ago. According to those who know them, Almena and Allison met through mutual friends, spent time in the Los Angeles area and traveled the world together. After Allison became pregnant with the couple’s first child in the early 2000s, they moved to Mendocino County, where Almena ran a thriving marijuana farm in the Willits area until he got into some kind of dispute and left.
“Derick got run out of Mendocino,” said an artist who has been a friend of Allison’s since the 1990s. “He has a way of pissing people off.” The artist briefly lived at the Ghost Ship, but had a falling-out with the couple over business issues more than a year ago. Like many who ran afoul of the Almena circle, he doesn’t want to be named for fear of being hounded on social media, or worse.
“Derick can be a decent person and build community,” the artist said. “But his response to everything after a while is to yell and scream. He’s incredibly insecure. He doesn’t know how to run a business. He’s always seducing people with his talk, then abuses them and keeps their money and kicks them out.
“He attracts people who are weak. He checks them out first, people who are kind and weak, then goes about exploiting their desires and weaknesses. He’s a manipulator ... very seductive, silver-tongued.”
He worried that Allison was dominated by Almena. “She has a soft spot for dark dudes ... and Derick has a dark, dirty vibe about him,” the artist said.
Several residents said part of that darkness was heavy methamphetamine abuse, although Almena posted on Facebook before the fire that he’d been drug-free for eight months. Allison’s father, Michael Allison, said friends managed to briefly get his daughter to check into a drug treatment program in 2015, but Almena soon persuaded her to return to the Ghost Ship with him.
After Mendocino, the couple ran an earlier version of the Ghost Ship — this free-form live-work collective was called Mother Ship. Then, after it winked out sometime after 2010, Almena and Allison lived in a far more conventional setting — a rented house in the tranquil Oakland hills.
It was a rambling, modern ranch home near the top of a winding road. Oak and fir trees surround the house and large front yard. A side veranda overlooks a ravine.
“They were a very sweet family,” said Gerda Siple, 81, who lives next door. “It was like a hippie house over there, you know, lots of tattoos and incense and such. Micah gave birth to two of the kids in the living room, and afterwards, each time, they went around the neighborhood and left post cards with a picture of Micah the new mom with a baby on her bosom.
“I called Micah ‘Earth Mother,’” Siple said. “They used to play Bali-type music over there, with chants and drums, but there was never anything really bizarre in behavior.”
Pictures and accounts from the Ghost Ship suggest that at some point, Almena developed a morbid bent toward art and spirituality. Skull motifs were scattered throughout the place, along with representations of the Hindu gods Kali, who is often depicted holding a severed head in one hand, and Shiva, known as the destroyer.
In a Facebook screed in July, Almena called himself “the thriller love child of Manson, Pol Pot and Hitler,” and said, “I can proverbally (sic) get away with murder.”
“He was always selling this bull— spirituality,” Mack said. “That’s his schtick.”
But Almena wasn’t always like that, said Zippy Lomax, a photographer in Portland, Ore. In a long post on her website after the fire, she wrote about how he was “a truly beautiful person” when she met him two decades ago, and said he became “one of my earliest photographic influences.”
It was only as later years passed, she wrote, that Almena “made some decidedly questionable choices that’ve caused a lot of us to prickle.” She referred to his “dark and erratic” updates on Facebook.
“Like so many others, I shook my head — quite bewildered by his behavior — and turned a blind eye,” Lomax wrote. “Out of sight, out of mind — not the most admirable solution, considering what high regard I once held him in.”
The Ghost Ship disaster, Lomax wrote, should prompt introspection among those who considered Almena their friend.
“As a community, I believe we abandoned him long ago,” she wrote. “We chose to stand disapprovingly at the edges, to judge his conduct from the sidelines, without daring to face the deeper issues that seeded his unfavorable demeanor.”
Lomax’s post was shared widely among the creative community, with many echoing her plea to end the “witch hunt” on Almena and his family and “choose compassion.”
She told The Chronicle the piece was not intended as a message of support for Almena. Rather, she said, it was “an invitation to analyze how we treat the troubled among us, not just as an alternative community, but as a greater society.”
Julia Sanasarian, a Portland, Ore., artist who connected with Almena and Allison through their artistic endeavors, said the finger-pointing was only worsening the tragedy.
“Some people rub other people the wrong way because they stand out, they speak out, they’re proactive, maybe in ways people are not into,” Sanasarian said.
She said that although it will forever be associated with tragedy, the Ghost Ship was a sincere attempt to create a community of like-minded artists.
“People need a safe place to be who they are, to express themselves,” she said, especially when “you live in culture and a world where it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to even find a place you can afford to live. People will find a place, and they will find a sanctuary that they will call home where they will feel like they are safe, no matter what the conditions are.”
Safety, affordability and community are constant themes in discussions about the Ghost Ship collective, but one topic that rarely comes up is the pecking order in the art world they moved in.
A 47-year-old Sonoma County artist, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution from the couple’s supporters, said she considered Almena and Allison to be part of an upper tier of the alternative arts community that controls access to resources such as a place to live, simply by accumulating enough cash to get a lease on a building like the Ghost Ship.
Like many in this small creative community, she knew the couple only peripherally, having once applied to live in a warehouse space they created in San Francisco years ago. She formed a low opinion of them as profiteers who ran what amounted to a cult.
“This cult likes to siphon resources and then play power trips in the community,” she said. “They’re no different than the establishment that they’re fighting. In fact, they’re a little more voracious.”
Shisha considers that, and all other attacks on the couple, to be Monday-morning character assassination.
“People always want to be a part of a great thing,” she said, “until it’s not a great thing. Then the finger-pointing starts.”
Vivian Ho and Kevin Fagan are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com Twitter: @VivianHo, @KevinChron
t was November when Talon and Acevedo took their tour of the warehouse. Talon, who was still pregnant, could “hardly fit through the narrow passageways leading through the building,” which was already stuffed with possessions weeks after Almena and Allison moved in.
Navigating the back stairway required ducking under power cords. There were rusty nails sticking out of bits of reclaimed wood. Power strips were daisy-chained across the warehouse floor.
“It was power strip to power strip to another power strip to an outlet,” Acevedo said.
They were led upstairs into the space the family was building out as living quarters. There was a large hole in the floor — where Almena and Allison planned to build the now infamous pallet staircase that people attending an electronic music show at Ghost Ship a little more than a week ago were unable to descend to escape the deadly fire. Talon said she remembered feeling nervous that the youngest of Allison’s children was playing near the opening in the floor.
“She didn’t seem concerned at all,” Talon said of Allison.
Acevedo and Talon left the warehouse feeling a lot more apprehensive about their new neighbors than they had been before the visit.
“There was lots of talk of grandiose, non-achievable goals,” Acevedo said. “I remember thinking ‘These people don’t have the means to pull this off.’”
Sure enough, within weeks the activity at the warehouse started to get on their nerves. The place was noisy. Electronic music pounded into the wee hours. People came and went around the clock, smoking and yelling in front of the building. Debris and lumber piled up out front. Late at night, Almena and other residents would go out scavenging in his truck and filled the warehouse with their finds.
“Things went downhill pretty quickly,” Talon said. “We had a baby and jobs and couldn’t sleep. I didn’t see a whole lot of art happening. There were a lot of parties with a lot of wasted people wandering around.”
Acevedo estimates that he and his wife — the couple have since divorced — called police 50 times over 2½ years. There were regular small fires and fights in the building. The police and fire departments were there on a weekly basis, they said.
Shelley Mack, a jewelry maker who lived in Ghost Ship for a few months, was quickly disillusioned with the warehouse.
And beyond the building’s shortcomings, personal problems were piling up for Almena and Allison.
Several residents said that the couple were heavy drug users — regularly smoking meth. Almena, who wrote on Facebook about quitting drugs, could be abusive toward his subtenants when high, they said.
“I believe he is clean now, but he would constantly yell at people, go off on poetic tangents meant to confuse and belittle, and he was incredibly manipulative,” said a former tenant who left in June 2015. “Derick would do things like turn off the power until people did his family’s dishes for him.”