44 West 73rd Street. Photo by Daniel Fitzsimmons.
Many Upper West Siders are familiar with the rundown townhouse on West 73rd Street, a neighborhood eyesore encased in scaffolding and infested with rats that’s been vacant for at least 30 years.
Why they probably don’t know is the strange and confusing saga of the building, at 44 W. 73rd Street, involving foreclosure in 1975, conflicting property deeds, fraud, and an ongoing court case.
In April of last year, an attorney named Steven Wimpfheimer filed suit against Aviation Distributors, Inc. and other parties that claim to own 44 West 73rd Street. The complaint asks, in brief, that the court recognize the building as belonging solely to Wimpfheimer’s client, a mysterious company named Community Preservation Neighborhood, Inc.
In court papers, Wimphheimer argues that his client is in possession of the “true copy” of the property deed, which Community Preservation acquired last February from a woman named Lois Voyticky, which Wimpfheimer maintains is the sole heir of the most recent previous owner, Marion Miller.
A lawyer for Aviation Distributors, Solomon Zabrowsky, made a defense and counterclaim, saying they acquired the property from Miller in 1977, and since then have continued to maintain the property and to pay taxes on it. The response goes on to say Aviation recently transferred ownership to an affiliated company named Kojo Global Development, Inc., and accused Community Preservation of engaging in fraud in claiming ownership over the building and filing their suit.
At the center of the dispute is whether Lois Voyticky really did have a claim to the property and was indeed Miller’s sole heir, and was within her legal rights to sell it to Community Preservation last year. Public records indicate a Frances Voyticky, who died in 1988, acquired the property from Jean Rudiano in 1964. Diane Haslett, who is listed as Rudiano’s attorney in legal documents from that time, facilitated the sale. Haslett surfaces again in 1975, presumably before she was married to Rudiano, when she bought 44 West 73rd Street from Otec Realty Corp.
(Haslett herself was in the news earlier this year, for her involvement in a speparate building, at 118 West 76th St, a similarly neglected townhouse. Haslett finally sold that building last year for $6.6 million after much pressure from community groups and elected officials.)
On West 73rd Street, the City of New York began foreclosure proceedings against the property in 1971, a process that was carried out in 1975, two months after Haslett bought it. It’s unclear how or why Haslett bought a property that was in the midst of being foreclosed upon. She could not be reached for comment.
According to public records, Marion Miller acquired 44 West 73rd Street sometime after it was foreclosed upon and sold it to Aviation in 1977. However, the deal seems have only involved the land, and not the building itself. At this juncture, in the mid-70s, it appears as if two deeds for the property were created.
More recently, public records with the New York City Register indicate Lois Voyticky sold the property last year to Community Preservation Neighborhood, Inc. for $205,000.
Aviation initially appeared to have the better case. A title trace commissioned by Kojo Global and carried out by Blackstone Land Title Agency found that Lois Voyticky, while indeed the sole survivor and distributee for the estate of Marion Miller, did not have any legal right to the property.
But this is where it gets weird(er).
In the midst of the case, on Aug. 8, 2014, NYS Civil Supreme Court Judge Carol Edmead granted a motion filed by Wimpfheimer that effectively declared Community Preservation sole owners of 44 West 73rd Street. The default judgement was granted after the defendant failed to appear in court.
And last month, the Manhattan DA announced an indictment against John Kojo Zi, owner of Kojo Global, on charges that he obtained titles to five buildings on the Upper West Side and Hamilton Heights by fraudulently filing forged deed transfers with the city’s Register’s Office. Among them was 44 West 73rd Street.
According to the DA’s office, Zi, age 53, allegedly filed a fraudulent deed transfer for the property, “transferring the property from its legitimate owner, Aviation Distributors, to his company…” He’s charged with multiple counts of grand larceny, fraud and forgery, among other crimes. According to the Real Deal, Zi’s lawyer is none other than Solomon Zabrowsky.
The DA’s press release goes on to say that Zi told the Register’s Office his father founded Aviation Distributors, and even submitted a forged contract from 1976 showing Aviation’s original purchase of the building for $360,000 cash.
“By filing forged deed transfers and lying on official forms, this defendant allegedly defrauded three Manhattan property owners, stealing five buildings out from under them,” said Manhattan District Attorney Vance in announcing the indictment. “Deed fraudsters use publicly available housing data to target properties that are not actively managed by their owners, including those that are falling into disrepair, or burdened with tax liens and unpaid utilities.”
But the legal dramas surrounding the property have gone largely unnoticed to neighbors of 44 West 73rd Street, and misconceptions about the property continue to abound, such as when a local blog erroneously reported that Haslett-Rudiano had finally put the building up for sale for $5 million.
“She doesn’t own it outright, I know that Diane [Haslett-Rudiano] does not own it,” Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer told the Spirit recently. “She lost it a while ago.”
Beyond that, however, Brewer said she does not know who currently owns it. Arlene Simon, the former president of Landmark West who was involved in the campaign to pressure Haslett-Rudiano into selling 118 West 76th Street, told the Spirit last year that even she doesn’t quite understand the history or legal status of 44 West 73rd Street.
“It’s one of those things where you can’t quite figure out the pieces,” she said.
And other mysteries remain. How was Community Preservation able to buy the property from Lois Voyticky last year for a paltry $205,000? The company was established in late-2013, has zero public profile, no website, and the only point of contact in state registration records is Wimpfheimer, who said he wouldn’t comment on the case as litigation is ongoing (both sides are due back in court Aug. 11).
When asked about topics not related to the litigation, such as what Community Preservation does, Wimpfheimer said he’s “not authorized to give out any additional information.”
Calls to a number listed as belonging to Lois Voyticky went unanswered. Zi did not return calls or an email. A spokesperson for the Manhattan DA’s office declined to comment beyond the press release and referred a request for more information on Zi to the NYPD, who said they have no arrest record for him either this year or last.
Zabrowsky did not return requests for comment about Aviation’s ownership claims over 44 West 73rd Street. It’s also unclear why he is representing Zi in court or affiliates Aviation with Kojo Global in court documents prior to the DA’s indictment.
So the mystery endures. If 44 West 73rd Street hasn’t belonged to Diane Haslett-Rudiano in decades, why has it been allowed to languish for all this time?
The biggest and most practical mystery of when and what will happen to the property, which is landmarked, also remains elusive. It has dozens of building violations and complaints, ranging from trash pileups on the roof and rodent infestations to unsafe scaffolding and debris falling off the facade. The last valid certificate of occupancy is from 1986.
Cigarette butts and pigeon droppings litter the stoop. The door is secured by a pair of shiny Master locks that seem as if they were recently installed. Birds roost in the scaffolding, which is painted red and covered in black netting.
And while most people are in the dark when it comes to 44 West 73rd Street, not everyone is. Adding to the intrigue is a weathered, handwritten sign with what looks like a picture of Zi standing on the top step of 44 West 73rd Street that warns, “We know who you are. What you are doing is fraud. The D.A. office [sic] is going to find you.”
It isn’t clear who wrote the sign or how long it’s been plastered to the door with transparent tape.
A parting admonition urges people to “call the cops if anyone sees him.”