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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Benjamin Herbst, Dirty Deeds: In Borough Park, the Case of the Nudnik Neighbor

The man on the other end of the intercom had warned me he was going to call the police. When he said it, The Observer knew he didn’t mean the kind that would pull up to the curb in a blue and white squad car with the letters NYPD stenciled on the door. This was Borough Park, after all.

The neighborhood, a stronghold of the city’s Hasidic community, has its own ambulance corps, rabbinical courts and civilian security squad, the Shomrim.

The Observer had been drifting around the area, a stranger in a strange land, and given our mission, we weren’t surprised to see a neighborhood enforcer bounding towards us. He had a huge belly that parted his suspenders, a sandy beard and noticeably thick hands.Seeking to avoid a confrontation, we gestured to the house next door. On a block of McMansions, the place stood out. It was encircled by a chain link fence. Behind it, a porchlike appendage that seemed as if it had been slapped right onto the front of the home was strewn with dust and rubble.

A vague framework of bare steel girders rose from the platform, as if some structure had been planned and then abandoned. The house itself was in shambles, with pieces of the facade ripped away, windows broken and boarded up and the roof bowing and in some places missing altogether.

“Do you know what happened here?” we asked the Shomrim volunteer, whose name was Abraham. He shook his head.

The Observer explained the situation. Benjamin Herbst appeared to have destroyed his neighbor’s home, and we were there to ask him why in person. He refused to come out.

“Well why don’t you call him?” Abraham suggested.

We had called Mr. Herbst, but the tale he’d spun over the phone was so outlandish and confusing, and the litany of papers he had emailed us so convoluted, we had hoped to persuade him to guide us through it face to face.

“Try coming back another time, it’s getting close to Shabbos,” Abraham said.

He was right. The shadows were getting longer and soon, most people in the area wouldn’t so much as flip on a light switch, forget about answer the door for an obvious outsider. Seeing we weren’t much of a threat, Abraham turned away, got on his walkie-talkie and disappeared down the street. It was time for us to go as well.

In 2005, a man named Enrico Mancini died in Brooklyn. He was 98 years old and had been ill for quite some time. He had outlived his wife as well as his only child. Mr. Mancini had come to Borough Park from Italy in the 1950s. There is a decades-old picture of him in court documents, standing in front of his house, 5017 17th Avenue—the one that is now in ruins. He had his arm around Mrs. Mancini in the picture: Proud immigrants who had found a foothold in the land of opportunity.

When Mr. Mancini died, the house and the rest of his estate passed into the control of one of his only remaining relatives, his daughter-in-law, Serafina Mancini, who, at the time, was in her 70s. Thinking 5017 17th Avenue seemed like an ideal place to spend her golden years, she made plans to move in. But when she arrived, she received a rude welcome from Mr.

Herbst, who announced that she was trespassing. To her shock, construction work had begun on the home. Mr. Herbst was in the midst of a full-blown project to integrate 5017 17th Avenue with his palatial house next door, 5019-5021 17th Avenue. It was as if one house were reaching out and grabbing its neighbor, the beams encircling the adjacent residence like tentacles.

Intimidated, confused and distraught, she retreated to her lawyer, William Cahill, who specializes in estate work. What the hell was going on?

To Mr. Cahill’s amazement, a quick perusal of property records indicated that Mr. Herbst was actually telling the truth. Four days after Mr. Mancini’s death in August, the deed to 5017 17th Avenue had been quietly transferred into the name of Jacob and Malka Herbst, Mr. Herbst’s son and daughter-in-law, who live with him. Technically, Mr. Herbst was the owner of the Mancini home. And on top of that, a loan had been taken out on the property in the amount of $500,000. The lender was a company called Ay One, which, as it happens, Mr. Herbst himself controls.

Mr. Herbst had likely never paid a dime of this loan to Jacob and Malka, but Mr. Cahill immediately understood what had been done. Mr. Herbst, he said, had forged the deed to put the property in the couple’s hands and then placed a lien against it.

In theory, the problem could be easily solved. Mrs. Mancini would simply need to show that the documents were fraudulent and transfer the property back into her name. But that loan had added a layer of complexity: Even if Mrs. Mancini were recognized as the rightful owner, she would be unable to sell the home now that its title was sullied with Mr. Herbst’s lien. Besides that, he could come after her for the $500,000 he would claim to have lent against the house.

“At first we just thought he was the eccentric neighbor,” Mr. Cahill remembered. “Then we quickly got an idea what a severe character Mr. Herbst is.”

As The Observer soon found, Mr. Herbst is indeed an extraordinary character—a virtuoso at turning the city’s labyrinthine legal system to his own ends. If, as an examination of his dealings suggests, he is a huckster, he is an impressively creative one—an auteur of sorts, whose canvas is New York’s bureaucracy and courts system.

In surrogate’s court, where Serafina Mancini’s lawyer, Mr. Cahill, started a proceeding to wipe away the phony debt and deed, Mr. Herbst launched a vigorous counterattack. Mrs. Mancini wasn’t a sweet old woman, he asserted, but a disloyal in-law who never visited, even as Mr. Mancini grew frail and increasingly helpless.
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The New York Observer

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