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 other acquaintances.
Derick Ion Almena, 46, leased and operated the cluttered warehouse where a blaze 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.
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. The cause of the fire is under investigation and no one has been charged.
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, infected with lice and ill-clothed, he said.
Michael Allison recalled Almena and Micah once bowling over with laughter 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."
Late Sunday, San Francisco's KGO-TV reached him for comment at a hotel and asked his thoughts on those killed in the fire.
"They're my children. They're my friends, they're my family, they're my loves, they're my future. What else do I have to say?" Almena said and walked away.
In a Facebook post hours after the fire, he made no mention of the deaths. "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, with only two exits.
Investigators have declined to say whether they believe whether Almena or the building's owner bear any responsibility for the blaze.
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 living 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.