OAKLAND, Calif. — Shelley Mack says she didn't know the converted Oakland warehouse known as the "Ghost Ship" was an illegal residence until after she moved in, when she was instructed to tell visitors it was a 24-hour workspace for artists.
The building was often freezing cold. Water and power were sometimes stolen from neighbors, who would get angry and shut them off. Once, a generator blew up, and residents quickly doused the flames, she said.
Mack, a 58-year-old tech sales worker and jewelry maker, lived in the warehouse for four or five months about two years ago. On Friday night, fire ripped through the cluttered space during a dance party, killing at least 33 people. Oakland officials say the death toll is expected to rise.
The building was crammed with rugs, old sofas and a garage-sale-like collection of pianos, paintings, turntables, statues and other items that quickly fed the flames.
Mack recalled a jumble of extension cords and heavy musical equipment.
"That place was just a death trap," she said. "I didn't think it was going to last this long before it went up or somebody shut it down."
Mack found the rental in a Facebook ad and paid about $700 a month to live there, along with a security deposit of the same amount and a one-time contribution of about $700 to a fund meant to go toward improvements. She said none were ever made.
"It's a good example of people taking advantage of people because they had no other options," Mack said. "People make businesses off scamming people online when they're looking for a place."
When inspectors or other outsiders came to visit, she and other residents scurried to hide clothes, bedding and other evidence anyone was living there.
One doorway was blocked, Mack said, because it led to the property of a neighbor who'd been in a dispute with the operators, whom she and other former tenants and friends identified as 46-year-old Derick Ion and his 40-year-old wife, Micah Allison.
"They lure you in with all these promises about what they're going to do with your deposit and your rent," she said. "They don't do any of it. They just party with it."
Public records show Ion's full name is Derick Ion Almena and that he has lived in California since at least 1990, mostly in Los Angeles, before moving to Oakland in 2006. Allison spent much of her life in Northern California.
The Satya Yuga Collective, one of two groups affiliated with the space, advertised it as a location for anyone with an open mind.
"Seeking all shamanic rattlesnake sexy jungle jazz hobo gunslingers looking for a space to house gear, use studio, develop next level Shaolin discipline after driving your taxi cab late at night, build fusion earth home bomb bunker spelunker shelters, and plant herbaceous colonies in the sun & air," its Facebook page advertised.
Neither Almena nor Allison answered telephone calls placed to numbers associated with them. They did not respond to email messages from The Associated Press.
Danielle Boudreaux, a 40-year-old hairdresser, said she became fast friends with the couple when they met eight years ago before a falling out about a year ago over conditions at the warehouse.
Access to the second floor — where there was a room for concerts and a home for the couple and their children — was a rickety, homemade staircase, she said.
"Calling it a staircase gives you the idea that it was a set of stairs. It was not," Boudreaux said. "It was random pieces of wood put together to create something that you could get up to the top floor on. But it was not what most people would consider a staircase. It was like a jimmy-rigged makeshift staircase. As soon as you stepped on it, it wobbled all over the place."
Boudreaux said the couple was constantly trying to keep enough tenants to cover the warehouse rent, renting out recreational vehicles that were parked on the first floor as well as other living spaces, and charging for the parties that were held there.
But Alastair Boone, a 22-year-old University of California, Berkeley student who went to the party Friday night with five friends, described what she called a stunning scene that included a larger-than-life wood carving of a Thai god or goddess, when she walked in around 11 p.m.
"It was obvious to me everyone who lives there cared about each other and were invested in a space they made a home," she said.
Boudreaux said she had a falling out with Almena after telling Allison's parents and sister a year ago that the warehouse was a dangerous place for the couple's three children to live.
"I had told her parents explicitly that the warehouse conditions were not safe," Boudreaux said. "Half the time they didn't even have running water, let alone heated water. They were using little electric heaters. There was cat (feces) everywhere. Piles and piles of random driftwood that had nails sticking out of it."
She said Almena continually moved pieces of wood around the space.
"Two weeks later it could be a completely different configuration," she said. "Even people who knew the building would have a hard time getting out."
Associated Press writers Tim Reiterman, Olga Rodriguez and Juliet Williams in San Francisco contributed to this report.