A woman who had the southeastern Queens house she inherited stolen from under her is suing the city for allowing the theft to happen. The Daily News reports that Jennifer Merin has sued in Queens Supreme Court over Darrell Beatty moving into the 141st Avenue Laurelton row house last year and allegedly trashing it after filing a fraudulent deed transfer to take over the property.
"[The city knows] this has been a problem and have not corrected it," Merin told the News. "I was a victim of the same negligence. It turned my life upside down, completely."
Merin lives on the Upper West Side and said the house has been in her family since 1931. She inherited the house decades ago when her mother died and has kept it empty but for heirlooms, preserving it "as a sanctuary to my family." Property records show Beatty filed a deed transfer in March 2014, backdated a year, transferring the property to him from someone named Edith Moore at a fictitious address, for $0.
Merin reportedly discovered Beatty and his two adult sons living in the house after she noticed a higher-than-usual water bill, but she says cops refused to take her report of a burglary after Beatty produced the property paperwork. Following a drawn-out court battle and a handful of news stories, Beatty was arrested last October on charges related to the alleged theft, and Merin got access to the home the following month. The deed transfer was not nullified until this July, records show.
According to the News, when Merin got back in she discovered the following:
A pit bull had used the basement as a bathroom. Bleach was poured on hardwood floors. A crystal chandelier and two 17th century porcelain Chinese vases were missing, among many other valuable items, she said.
“The treasures that were in the house — all of that, I’ve lost,” Merin said.
Beatty has pleaded not guilty to 10 felony counts, including filing a false document, burglary, and grand larceny, that could carry as many as 82 years in prison. His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Deed theft is a widespread problem in the city, in part thanks to a system that until recently had few safeguards in place to prevent someone from seizing a property with the stroke of a pen. The city's Sheriff Department and Department of Finance have ramped up enforcement in the past two years. The Department of Finance now estimates it is investigating 120 cases of possible deed theft, and says it has overseen 15 arrests this year. A spokeswoman for the agency said that Merin's case highlighted the problem to Finance Commissioner Jacques Jiha as he took office.
Fraud rings often target elderly and immigrant homeowners who are in debt, she said, and the overheated real estate market in the city makes quick flips and big profits possible.
"Deed fraud has become a serious problem for New York City, particularly since the real estate market is so strong," Jiha said in a statement.
The spokeswoman said the Finance Department has now incorporated the Sheriff's Department into a process for reviewing questionable filings, rather than walking potential fraudsters through the process of properly filling out forms, as was previously done. The sheriff is now hiring more deputies to investigate, cameras have been placed in property records offices, staff have been retrained to flag potentially questionable transactions, and the Finance Department now notifies property owners whenever there is a deed filing for their property. The spokeswoman urged people to follow up on notifications, and to be vigilant on behalf of potentially vulnerable family members.