Rent To Die For?
Being a tenant in New York City can almost be murder. That's what two Lower East Side residents learned last week when their landlord, 46-year-old Alvin Weiss, admitted in criminal court that he had hired a hit man to kill them in hopes of getting higher rents. No one died from the efforts. Weiss, who manages or owns about 20 downtown buildings and whose tenants knew him as Mark Glass, pleaded guilty to charges of attempted murder and arson. He is to be sentenced to seven to 14 years in prison on February 18.
In a city where landlord-tenant relations are typically uneasy and sometimes vicious, Weiss's 1997 arrest made him an icon of a greedy landlord willing to go to any length to be rid of complaining tenants. And the location of his real estate empire pushed Weiss's crimes further into the spotlight. Much of the property that Weiss owned or managed is along bar-and-boutique-studded Ludlow, Stanton, and Rivington streets, and the case against him relied on a drug dealerturned-informant who did business from a pay phone outside the popular El Sombrero restaurant at Ludlow and Stanton.
Yet Weiss's January 6 pleading is confounding, in several ways. Weiss's victims, for instance, don't celebrate their would-be killer's conviction. Despite Weiss's admission, some tenants still believe he's innocent. And for all the allegations about Weiss's money-driven schemes, he ran properties in a most financially unproductive way.
"I don't want to talk about it; I'm going to hang up now," said Brigitte Marx, who still lives at 42 Clinton Street, where Weiss's plot to have a neighorhood felon inject her with a lethal dose of heroin was to play out. Marx's former neighbor, Burnell Crawford, whose apartment was set ablaze on Weiss's instructions, has moved out. "I just don't want to talk about it," he told the Voice.
Odder yet is the fact that several tenants willing to discuss the case basically praised Weiss. "I can't tell you how much this doesn't make sense," says Christine Carrigan, who lives at 42 Clinton with her husband and two young sons. "It's great living here; Mark was always very cool."
That sentiment is explained by yet another bewildering fact: Weiss let his tenants live cheap, sometimes even free. Though the buildings he ran or owned are in varying degrees of dilapidation some are heatless and run-down, but others are comfortable and charming the exceedingly low rents make them a bargain. Carrigan, for instance, pays $275 for a well-heated one-bedroom with an eat-in kitchen and great light in the same building where Marx lives. Tenants say Weiss was a hassle-free landlord, often letting back-rent slide. Says Charles Helm, a tenant at 172 Ludlow Street, "I've told Mark to his face that he's the nicest slumlord in New York City."
Indeed, Weiss's low-rent empire is itself an anomaly. Arsons and murder attempts aside, this landlord seemed uninterested in doing what landlords do: getting the highest rent possible. Instead, the buildings lie financially fallow. "His economic position was just to buy and hold," says Chris Bongirne, Carrigan's husband, who has lived at 42 Clinton for 15 years and who once was the super. "It was not about quick money."
Not every Weiss tenant is a fan. One said Weiss has "threatened to get me out of the building. He's capable of all sorts of things," but refused details, fearing they would give her away. And while Helm doubts the landlord ordered anyone's murder, he has seen him "slug a tenant who swung at him, and I got into a pushing match with him" when heat was scarce, says Helm. "I'd characterize him as having a temper, but not as violent."
Prosecutors have called Weiss "more than a slum landlord," and described him as "a very violent and unconscionable man." A search of his downtown buildings and Manhattan Beach home turned up bank and credit cards in several different names, a handgun, a shotgun, three rifles, and ammunition.
The case against Weiss relied on a neighborhood felon, 31-year-old Eduardo Almestica (a/k/a "Crazy Eddie" and "Dirty Eddie"), whose résumé includes convictions for weapons possession and heavy-duty narcotics peddling, including heroin sold under the brand names Mortal Combat, Hellraiser, and Slamming #1 throughout the Lower East Side, East Harlem, the South Bronx, and parts of Brooklyn. By August 1997, Almestica was facing a possible 40-year sentence on federal drug charges when he decided to cooperate with an NYPD detective investigating the arson of Burnell Crawford's apartment.
Almestica told police he had known Weiss from the neighborhood for 20 years and that the landlord had paid him to terrorize tenants in at least five buildings since 1992. According to court records, on orders from Weiss, Almestica paid someone to set fire to an apartment at 172 Ludlow Street in May 1996. Almestica told cops that in another deal with Weiss, on March 13, 1997, he sent a drug-running pal with a can of gasoline to torch Crawford's Clinton Street apartment. And Almestica told the detective that in April of that year, Weiss said that he wanted Crawford and Marx to "be taken care of by a drug overdose."
By early September, Crawford had moved out, but Almestica and Weiss continued to meet to plan Marx's overdose. Almestica said Weiss paid him about $4000 for her murder, plus $350 for heroin to be injected into Marx.
On September 25, 1997 the day Weiss was due in court to answer complaints from Marx about her $375-a-month apartment police faked Marx's death. They hid her in an uptown hotel, put crime-scene tape on her door, and told neighbors that the German immigrant had been murdered. The next day, Almestica, who was wearing a wire, told Weiss that Marx was dead. He handed Weiss a set of Marx's keys that he claimed he had taken from her at the time of her murder, and collected the final payment. Almestica turned over the cash and the tape recordings to cops.
Almestica remains out on bail on the federal drug charges and is awaiting sentencing.
Tenants who support Weiss note Almestica's credibility problems, and say Marx herself was a troublesome neighbor. In March 1997, tenants petitioned Weiss to evict Marx, who they said was an addict who brought drug dealers into the building. Marx has denied using drugs.
Weiss's plea shaved a possible life sentence to a maximum of 14 years. "He assessed the proof, he assessed the risk" of a life sentence, said Weiss's attorney, Martin Adelman. "He's a 46-year-old man, and he felt it was the wisest course."
Like other tenants, Helm is worried about what will happen to his building with Weiss in jail; a gentrifying landlord could mean an end to low rent. The D.A.'s office says it has no plans now to seize the buildings. Reading last week's headline in the New York Post that labeled Weiss the "Landlord from Hell," Helm winced. "Oh, that's not fair! He's not from hell. Purgatory, maybe."
A series of public hearings will be held in preparation for a May auction that will put more than 100 community gardens up for grabs. The hearings begin January 13 at Specter Hall, 22 Reade Street, at 10 a.m. On January 15, another will be held at City Hall at 10 a.m. For information, call the Community Garden Coalition at 420-8651.
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