When Sandra Borbon first met her prospective landlord, she was desperate. It was July of 2015 and she was being evicted from the East New York townhouse where she was living with her 75-year-old mother, her wife, and their four foster children, aged 9 months to four years old. For months she had been paying rent and fixing up the place as part of what she says was a rent-to-own arrangement, only it turned out she was paying someone who didn't actually own the building, and the legitimate owner sued to evict her.

Borbon was broke and in credit card debt from pouring what she says was tens of thousands of dollars into the house on Essex Street. Her legal services lawyers helped her negotiate a few-month window to move out, and in that time, working selling hair and nail products and bags at a flea market near the Gateway Center mall, she saved up to get a new place.

Driving around the neighborhood one day, she saw a well-dressed man ordering a group of workers around as they repaired 385 Warwick Street, a modest two-story box of a place a block off of Pitkin Avenue. The man was smoking a cigar, and Borbon remembers, "I thought he was a big guy, he was a businessman, he was a rich man. He got a lot of houses, buildings everywhere." She parked, walked over, and asked him when the house might be available to rent.

Yaniv "Ben" Erez (Erez Cigars/Facebook)

So began her relationship with Yaniv "Ben" Erez, a cigar company owner and decidedly small-time landlord who a judge would later call "serial scam artist who ran a Ponzi scheme." In just three weeks, Borbon would find herself and her family being forced out of their home once more, but not before realizing she was one of a tribe of strangers who had the misfortune of giving Erez money and expecting a decent place to live in return.

Erez, who hails from Israel and has called Miami and eastern Queens home, is seldom an easy guy for his tenants to reach, but he has now fallen off the map after being handed a jail sentence for what he did to one of Borbon's predecessors at 385 Warwick, a sabotage job of epic proportions that involved heavy tools and human feces, and could have blown up a good chunk of the block.

"I hope they find him," Borbon said. "I hope he go to jail and never get out. That way he can pay for all he do to all those people."

To understand Borbon's travails, we need to look back at those 385 Warwick tenants who came before her, specifically a woman named Zoila Vasquez, who in April 2015 found herself embroiled in a legal battle over Erez's attempt to evict her. The case was strange from the outset, because Erez locked Vasquez out using a warrant for eviction in the name of another former tenant, a woman named Christina Fuentes, whom he evidently first tried to kick out along with others back in 2013.

Vasquez, who works at a nearby religious supply store, was living with her brother-in-law, and the two fought the eviction in housing court. Judge Jean Schneider ordered Erez several times to let Vasquez in temporarily so she could get her things, and though he let her in on April 15th to see her belongings undisturbed, he didn't allow her to take anything out.

In court two days later, Judge Schneider ordered Erez to let Vasquez back into her building to live. Erez asked to be given till the following day to do it, but Schneider said no, he must go straight from court in Downtown Brooklyn to the house and meet her with keys, and if he didn't, Vasquez would be within her rights to hire a locksmith to break in. Vasquez went, and after waiting for two hours with no sign of Erez, she called a locksmith.

In a decision issued last month, Judge Schneider describes what Vasquez found inside:

The apartment had been systematically and thoroughly demolished. Walls had been broken open. Toilets had been disconnected. Water pipes and a water meter had been removed. A gas pipe had been removed but gas was still flowing. The boiler had been disconnected from the chimney. Human feces had been left in an open planter and wiped on some children's clothing.

Ms. Vasquez called 911. The police, the Fire Department and the gas company responded. They took emergency measures to shut off the gas flow and stop carbon monoxide from collecting in the apartment from the boiler. Mr. Erez eventually appeared at the building around 10:30 p.m. while emergency workers were still there. He did not ask any questions about what had happened. He demanded and received a key to the new lock installed by the locksmith and left.

Clothes are strewn across the floor of 385 Warwick Street after what a judge determined was sabotage by Yaniv Erez. (Legal Aid Society)

Noting that Erez repeatedly testified that he was the only person with keys to the building, Schneider ruled that "The damage to the apartment could only have been done by Mr. Erez or with his cooperation." After the sabotage, he claimed to the judge that he did not go directly to the house because he is an observant Jew and it was a Friday, but earlier in the proceedings he had said he worked all day on a Saturday for a cigar show. For all that, Schneider found Erez in criminal contempt of court and sentenced him to one month in jail, and a $1,000 fine.

"It's very uncommon to get criminal contempt," said Kathleen Brennan, a Legal Aid attorney who represented Vasquez's brother Oscar Cuellar. "It happens like once every two years or three years. It’s a very big deal. It shows that he managed to do this in the same building for multiple people."

Bashed-in drywall sits in a bathtub at 385 Warwick Street. (Legal Aid Society)

It took 10 months from the sabotage to reach that decision, and after a month of lenience for Vasquez, inspectors declared 385 Warwick legally uninhabitable. Assuming that the goal was to keep Vasquez out, it worked. What's more, the inspectors' vacate order, and Vasquez's legal right to first dibs on the apartment once it was fixed up did not keep Erez from renting the place out. Far from it.

Sandra Borbon, Erez's next victim, is from the Dominican Republic and English is her second language; she does not read or write it well. Also, as she puts it, "I don't know nothing about courts and all that." And she was trusting.

So when Erez took her to see an apartment in Yonkers and a tenant followed them out and called the police on him, trying to block in his car as Borbon sat in the passenger seat, Borbon accepted his explanation that the woman hadn't paid rent in a year and was angry he was trying to get her out. Borbon said the Yonkers apartment was like "a dream," with an empty storefront downstairs where she envisioned opening a cafe, but the Administration for Children's Services wouldn't allow her to take her foster kids out of the city, so she had to pass.

What looks like a water heater is visible through a smashed wall in 385 Warwick Street. (Legal Aid Society)

When later, at Borbon's kitchen table, Erez said that all the renovations would be done at the house on Warwick within 24 hours, and pressured her to pay $6,000 in cash and a check, she didn't notice that the receipt listed the Yonkers address and not the Warwick Street one. The money was supposed to cover three months' rent and to secure the whole house, rather than just a floor, but the lease listed Borbon's family as occupying "Apt #1." This too passed unremarked.

Even with the paperwork, Borbon's wife was suspicious, so as Erez wrote out the receipt, she demanded his driver's license, and he handed it over for them to photograph.

"That’s when I trust him to give the money," Borbon said. "You don’t give the driver’s license to someone you don’t know, like that. He make it real at that point, handwriting to his receipt, same name to the ID. How am I going to think that he’s going to do [what he did]?"

She signed the check but left it blank, unsure of how to fill it out. She would later testify that she agreed to pay $1,500 but Erez wrote in $2,500. It was July 12th, and Erez gave her the keys the same day. The next day, the check bounced, and she gave Erez another signed blank check, making sure to transfer enough money to cover the cost. When she moved in on the 15th, some work was done, but the ceiling of the ground-floor bathroom was still damaged from a leak, and host to a colony of mold.

On the bright side, she had a place for her family to live, and she set about making it nice. She bought and brought in a refrigerator, because the house had none. And noticing the gas oven was infested with roaches, she moved in an electric one. Then, on her first evening in the house, a man showed up at her door, and walked right in. The man, a stranger, had a key.

For the first few minutes, Borbon and the man screamed at each other. The man's name was Diego and their initial outrage turned to confusion, then solidarity: they figured out that Erez had rented Diego the whole house, too.

"I told him, 'Look at my lease,'" Borbon remembers. "'I’m not lying to you, you’re not lying to me.'"

Diego had paid $1,250 in rent and a $1,250 deposit, and his receipt too listed "Apt. #1." He works around the corner at a barbershop and his parents live nearby. Borbon implored him to stay with his parents until things were sorted, telling him to think of whether his mother would want him living in a house full of women and children. Diego agreed to only store a few boxes on the ground floor, she said, and when they called Erez, he said he was in Miami but would clear everything up as soon as he returned.

For the next two and a half weeks, Borbon settled in. Gradually, as her work schedule allowed, she brought in curtains, blinds, furniture, pots, pans, and food. She called Erez, and talked with him on the phone several times, asking when he would finish fixing the house, and what he was planning to do about the Diego situation. He purportedly assured her he would "fix everything" when he came back, but he never showed his face. Then, on August 4th, Borbon's home life was once again upended.

"First Ben sent his workers to tell me and Diego to leave the house or we’re going to call the police," she said. "We said, 'Yes call the police, because someone’s going to have to fix this mess.'"

What she didn't know was that the vacate order that had kept Vasquez from returning was still in effect. But the first time the police came, they arrived at the doorstep of 385 Warwick the same time as a woman loaded down with belongings. Asked what she was doing, Borbon recalls the woman saying, "I'm trying to move into this house."

"What are you talking about?" Borbon remembers saying. "I just move here!"

As the now-familiar back-and-forth began, one officer said, according to Borbon, "I'm tired of shit with this house. I'm not coming back."

Borbon implored the officers to stay to sort things out, but they would not. They came back later in the day, though, this time around 10 strong.

"That's when I got scared," she said. "I want to know, what's going on here?"

The cops called Erez, demanding he come to the house, and eventually, he did. Borbon waved her lease, telling the officers she had a right to be in the house. Erez took an officer aside and explained about the vacate order. One cop had a copy, and taped it to the door.

As the officers tried to explain to Borbon what the order was, she pleaded with them to take a walk around the house to see that everything was in working order. One officer explained that while only a marshal could put her out, he had to tell her it was unsafe to be there. Diego, meanwhile, was determined to get his money back on the spot and summoned "a lot of guys," as Borbon remembers. The men surrounded Erez, and Borbon and a neighbor say that he coughed up cash on the spot. When Erez tried to say he would come up with the difference the next day, Diego said, "No, how about you go to the ATM now, and my brother will go with you," according to the neighbor. Diego confirms that he got his $2,500 back.

Borbon was not so lucky. As she was talking to the police and Erez, his workers set about disabling the electricity and the water and gas, she said. As it became clear that she wasn't going to be able to stay, she started making arrangements for the kids to return to Essex Street, where she had a little more time on the housing-court clock before eviction (one of her lawyers would later negotiate an additional two and a half months in court). One trip at a time, she moved a few essentials: a mattress for her children, some milk, an air conditioner unit, and some diapers. She says that she gave up around 11 p.m., and texted Erez to ask if she could come back the following day to get the rest of her stuff. He didn't respond.

The next day, she says Erez contacted her to say there was nine feet of water in the basement because she had broken a pipe. She denies breaking anything. Police came to her temporary apartment on Essex Street and told her that they'd gone inside the Warwick Street house and that her belongings had been destroyed in the flood. Borbon says that were it not for her mom and foster kids depending on her, Erez's actions would have destroyed her.

"He left me naked," she said. "You don’t imagine. He left me broken."

Yaniv Erez's jet-setting social media output is worlds away from the squalid conditions of the buildings he owns in Brooklyn and Queens. (Instagram)

With the help of Legal Aid attorney Deborah Diamant and a sympathetic housing specialist, Borbon went on a house-hunting spree. She obtained a Section 8 voucher and found a place in Long Beach, where she had once lived. Unable to commute to Brooklyn, she lost her spot at the flea market, but has found work as a home health aide. Erez, meanwhile, seems to have stayed busy on Warwick Street. Diego, still a neighborhood fixture, reports that at least four couples have moved into the house since August, and that he saw the landlord's workers selling off Borbon's supposedly destroyed belongings, including her stove, crib, fridge, and sofa.

Erez was also in front of various judges, answering to his treatment of both Vasquez and Borbon, among other tenants. Explaining Borbon's receipt to Judge Marcia Sikowitz, he said that it was a "potential receipt," but couldn't explain what that is. He denied signing the receipt. Explaining the vacate order, he claimed that someone had broken into the apartment and stolen the pipes, and later that someone had broken in and destroyed the building, assertions un-backed by any police report or other documentation. He said that he had taken Borbon to look at the Warwick Street house, but that he made clear it was not inhabitable. He claimed she broke in and set up residence without his permission.

Sikowitz didn't buy it. In her decision early this month, she wrote:

It is clear that [Erez] lies under oath with impunity and without regard for civil law, based on his demeanor, his facial expressions, and his incredible testimony...[Erez] is a serial scam artist who ran a ponzi scheme with a residential apartment taking funds from tenants who are unsophisticated, without a fluent ability to read and write English.

Sikowitz declined to order Erez to pay the $8,500 in stolen rent plus an estimated $10,000 in lost property and triple damages for the fraud, saying it was outside her jurisdiction. Borbon said she would like to pursue it in civil court.

No one answered the door at 385 Warwick when I paid a visit over the weekend, but lights were on upstairs. The vacate order remains in place, and neighbors said there are separate groups of people living on each floor. The neighbors complained about a man living in a trailer on the lot next door to the house, also owned by Erez, and about cars with no plates, and one semi truck they say are parked on the block permanently, and which they say local police refuse to do anything about.

"Say, do you know who owns this building?" neighbor Anthony Columbel asked when he spotted me taking photos.

Columbel knew Erez, but was surprised to hear that he was the landlord. Neighbors said that they had seen workers doing renovation on the building a few months back, and that for a time one worker was collecting rent, passing himself off as the owner in Erez's absence.

"I hope they get someone else to own it, and make it nice," Columbel said after hearing the whole convoluted story.

Yaniv Erez at a cigar event in Las Vegas, a far cry from the squalid conditions of the buildings he owns in Brooklyn and Queens. (Instagram)

Despite the drama, Erez has resurfaced on the block recently, showing up two weeks ago, according to Diego, and as recently as March 24th, according to another neighbor.

Still, there are any number of places Erez could be. He has listed addresses in Briarwood, Fresh Meadows, and Queens Village, and on Facebook he calls Miami home. Promoting his cigar brand Erez Cigars on social media, he has been photographed smoking and glad-handing in locales that contrast sharply with the weedy lots and sloping eaves of Warwick Street: at promotional events in Germany; on yachts and jet skis; behind the wheel of a car in Paris; and at his factory in the Dominican Republic, often in the company of young women and well-fed, cigar-chomping men.

Erez's online output has slowed since last fall. In November, he wrote on Facebook that he "decided to get off the entire social network...to focus on my personal life, my family and children." The domain registration for his company website has lapsed and the corporate phone number has been disconnected. He did not respond to an email and a call to his cellphone number seeking comment, but he did post to Facebook as recently as February 25th.

Yaniv Erez's latest social media output. (Facebook)

One resident of Warwick Street, who asked not to be identified by name, said, "They got to do something about this man. If they can't get him on [the scams at 385 Warwick], they can get him for taxes."

Indeed, Erez's questionable activity does not seem to be confined to the one property, or to the particular contours of this serial scam. Rather, he seems to have violated various rules with relative impunity for more than a decade. 385 Warwick had a tax lien of $7,744 as of November 2014, and combined with other back taxes owed by Erez and his wife, and corporate entities he is affiliated with, he owes $17,059 for unpaid taxes dating back to 2007. Further, while he seems to own just four properties including 385 Warwick, they have racked up 195 building code violations, or 11.5 per apartment, with some citations dating back as far as 2003.

The Housing Preservation and Development registrations required for the other three buildings have all expired, and a partial vacate order exists on one, in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens. Erez's companies owe another $21,300 in fines to the Department of Buildings for work done without permits, records show.

483 Rogers Avenue, a rent-stabilized building in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn where tenants believe Yaniv Erez cut their heat and electricity to drive them out. (Nathan Tempey/Gothamist)

"I’ve seen a lot of really unethical behavior from landlords and various kinds of scams," said Legal Aid attorney Alex Heinegg. She defended tenants at a rent-stabilized building owned by Erez in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, where Erez allegedly cut the electricity for 10 days around Christmas and the heat for nearly a month in February 2015, then sued when they withheld rent. His second lawsuit against her client was thrown out last week when Erez and his lawyer failed to appear in court.

"He’s really in a class by himself," she said.

Heinegg and her colleagues said that Erez's abuses may be particularly egregious, but landlords take advantage of poor people, particularly immigrants and people who aren't financially literate, every day in New York. Borbon's attorney, Deborah Diamant, explained:

Take my client who asks for repairs and his landlord screams in the halls about calling "immigration." Or landlords who don't make repairs for 30 years. Or landlords who rent mold-filled homes to low-income folks at super-inflated prices because they have no other option but to rent those apartments or go into shelter. It's the business of landlord-ing.

In East New York, where the median income is $34,000 and the murder rate is more than twice the city average, Erez could yet make a hefty profit on the house he bought for $242,500 back in 2005. The neighborhood is the first of 15 in line to be rezoned as part of Mayor Bill de Blasio's just-approved affordable housing plan, and properties across the area, no matter how derelict, are exploding in value. Still, given the neighborhood's persistent youth unemployment, among the highest in the city, and its undercurrent of violence, a neighbor said that if the tax man doesn't catch up to Erez, someone less friendly might.

"I seen better people than him get killed for less," the neighbor said. "These young kids don't play. They'll take $500 and they'll shoot you. He's taking it too far."

A Brooklyn District Attorney's Office spokeswoman would not confirm or deny that it is looking into Erez's dealings, citing the office's policy of not discussing pending investigations. A Sheriff's Department spokeswoman said that an arrest order has not yet been issued, meaning that Erez is not yet technically a fugitive. Once the order goes through, she said, he can only be arrested in New York state, and he couldn't be extradited for contempt of court.