Arson for Hire

The Men Who Are Burning New York

 June 2, 1980

There are two crimes that are more than just felonies—they are treason. One is the importation, distribution, and sale of heroin. The other is arson for profit.

There are not crimes of passion or desperation. They are crimes of organized greed. They cause the deaths of innocent citizens and brave firefighters. They kill blocks, ruin neighborhoods, and destroy cities. Ultimately, these are crimes that annul hope and diminish humanity.

Burned out in the South Bronx, 1978
photo: Sylvia Plachy
Burned out in the South Bronx, 1978

Arson breaks up families, frightens away investment and jobs, and deprives the poor of housing. Every arsonist is potentially a mass murderer. Those subversives who hire others to torch occupied buildings—like those who move the envelopes of fine white powder—are the first vultures of late capitalism.

It was more than two years ago that we first stumbled upon this city's biggest arson ring of landlords, lawyers, brokers, and insurance adjusters.

In the winter of 1978, the South Bronx was already a moonscape with abandoned, charcoaled shards. The cops who worked in the 41st Precinct no longer called their station "Fort Apache." They called it "The Little House on the Prairie," because there were so few surviving buildings or families in the area.

In the winter of 1978 the burning of the Bronx had moved north into neighborhoods called Morris Heights, Morrisania, Tremont, Highbridge, Kingsbridge, and Fordham. Whenever there was a suspicious fire and the homeless tenants were Hispanic or black, the media would call the area the South Bronx. But it was really other communities, and other police precincts.

For several days that winter we walked around these dying blocks with a cop named Joe Dean, who was then assigned to the Bronx arson task force in the 48th Precinct. We met not only the most recent victims of arson, but those who feared they would become tomorrow's refugees.

We saw tenants and small shopkeepers plead for protection, saying the building next to them had burned the night before, and that their house would be next. But because of budget cuts, neither the police or the fire marshals or the district attorney's office had the manpower to watch a building through the night.

Each day Joe Dean had to explain this to poor people who sensed they would soon be burned out for the second or third time in their lives. And Joe Dean felt powerless to do anything about it.

Within a week we saw the tenants of 201 Marcy Place, 1126 Kelly Street, and 1403 Grand Concourse turned into urban boat people by arson. And soon Dean was so frustrated by the suffering he saw—and could not stop—that he asked to be transferred to more risky plain-clothes work in Times Square.

Eventually, we discovered a pattern to the burning of the Bronx, and later of Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Queens. Over the last five years, 250 buildings, all owned by one interlocking network of landlords—and all insured for large amounts—have had fires.

The maypole of this circle of landlords appears to be 50-year-old Joe Bald, a convicted felon with ties to the mafia. In 1978 we named Bald as one of the 10 worst landlords in New York. Now he is about to go on trial in Queens for burning one rent-controlled building that he did not own. Other landlords affiliated with Bald in carious realty companies, mortgages, transactions, deeds, partnerships, or fire insurance policies include Harry Rosen, Henry Katkin, Kenneth Passifiume, Marvin Siegel, Abe Sloan, Kenneth Aska, James Blackwell and Benjamin Tabak.

Sometimes Bald's own name appears on the deed to a property. Sometimes the property is registered in the name of a front, frequently a superintendent or managing agent. Sometimes Bald only buys an interest in the mortgage. Sometimes the property is in the name of another landlord who has shared a dummy company with Bald in the past. Sometimes the property is never registered at all with the city.

Sometimes the building is in the name of one of 50 different shell companies that Bald uses with names like Kajo Realty, 820 Suburban Realty Company, 952 Rehab Corporation, 748 St. Marks Development Corporation, or M.B. Management. Sometimes Bald's interest in a property is completely hidden and is not on paper anywhere.

According to law enforcement agents, Bald even acts as a "fire broker" for other landlords. He will supply a torch for a building gin which he has no financial interest—for a free or a future consideration.

But there is always the extraordinary coincidence of fire and money, or arson and insurance. There is the pattern of the building bought, the swift withdrawal of heat and hot water from the tenants, and then the fire set in the middle of the night in a top rear apartment.

Over the last five years, Bald and a variety of his associates have collected an estimated $5 million in fire insurance claims. Bald's properties have been insured by Lloyds of London, by the FAIR plan, and by other private companies.

Despite Bald's indictment for arson last September in Queens, he seems to be as active as ever. Three buildings purchased by Bald this year around the Grand Concourse have already had a series of fires, and are now abandoned. One of these buildings is 55 East 175 th Street—a six-floor, brick apartment house acquired in January of 1980 by 446 Management Corporation, in which Bald holds a financial interest. This large, decent building had two suspicious fires on March 3, another on March 4, another one April 27, and a fifth fire on May 11. It now stands empty, the roof gone, the windows broken, mounds of burnt garbage in the courtyard.

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