Sociopaths. Talented artists. Slumlords. Loving parents. Killers. Scapegoats.
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.”
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