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.
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?