The User Who Got Used
When the Kenmore Hotel on 23rd Street reopened on May 4, politicians flocked to the ceremony, anxious to be associated with a project that had reincarnated the building from a murderous drug den into 326 units of affordable housing. In a famous 1994 raid, U.S. Marshals had seized the roiling crack house and turned it over to a nonprofit agency. Now, five years and more than $40 million later, the decrepit old Kenmore Hotel was making its debut as the spiffy new Kenmore Hall. But amid the speeches and gushes of awe at the Kenmore's reinvention, no one seemed to notice that a certain middle-aged man who had played a role in the hotel's transformation wasn't there. That's because Tony Merritt, once an insider at the Kenmore, was unwelcome.
From 1991 to 1998, the 57-year-old Merritt not only lived at the Kenmore as a tenant; he was a confidential informant (CI) for the New York Police Department, fingering drug dealers who plied their trade in the Kenmore's shoddy hallways and cubbyhole rooms. Merritt, who had learned the ins and outs of the drug trade from his own seven-year crack addiction, says he helped cops make hundreds of arrests, many of which led to evictions of drug dealers at the single-room occupancy (SRO) hotel.
But by August 1998, Merritt himself was embroiled in controversy at the Kenmore. Merritt's landlord was suing him for back rent totaling $2150. And fellow tenants had sued him, alleging Merritt had subverted their efforts to start a tenant group, though a judge would later rule that Merritt had "violated no rights of the plaintiffs."
Then Merritt caught a lucky break. Just as the Kenmore was being rehabilitated, drug problems emerged at another SRO, the Times Square on West 43rd Street, and Merritt's CI status landed him a room there. The Times Square, a former welfare hotel that had also been "rescued" by a nonprofit agency called Common Ground Community, turned to the NYPD for help. Pleased with Merritt's work at the Kenmore, cops recruited him to be the in-house snitch at the Times Square. Under Merritt's tenure, 49 drug arrests were made and several evictions followed.
Now, a year later, Merritt is being evicted from the Times Square. On August 10, housing court judge Bruce Kramer ordered him out by September 10. Common Ground executive director Rosanne Haggerty says Merritt must leave because he was never a tenant, only a "licensee" in a police investigation that has reached its conclusion. Merritt argues that Common Ground is dumping him because he did his job too well, finding the much heralded Times Square far more infested with drugs than Haggerty cares to admit. And he charges that the nonprofit, known in housing circles for its political steam, reached out to the NYPD to cut the investigation short, fearing that too many drug arrests would jeopardize Common Ground's cachet. The investigation ended in late March.
Haggerty is out of the country and was unavailable for comment, but she did testify in detail about Merritt's allegations during his housing court trial. There, she admitted that she told the police captain in charge of the investigation that she wanted it ended. But she denied any inappropriate intervention, saying police stopped the operation because the drug problem had been dealt with.
Police sources close to the investigation refused to discuss it on the record. But tenants say drugs remain a problem at the Times Square, and since May two months after the investigation ended five drug arrests have been made there, says Deputy Inspector Denis McCarthy, borough commander of Manhattan South Narcotics. "We're monitoring the location, and it's not like we're going to stop an investigation because somebody feels there's too many people being arrested," says McCarthy, who was not involved in the effort. "That's not the way we work."
Merritt's case, with his accusations of criminal behavior and coverup, rivals the most acrimonious landlord-tenant dispute. Drawn years ago from the hills of his boyhood home in the South to New York City, Tony Merritt is at once an insider wise to the ways of crack dealers and cops, and an outsider whose very speech marked by a genteel drawl than has not worn away after 17 years in the city gives him away. Merritt is on the way out, and he knows it.
"I've opened up many doors, usually by having them kicked in, your honor," Merritt quipped during his housing court case before Kramer. "In this case, I may get the door. I know I'm washed up." But hours later, pondering Kramer's decision to let him stay at the Times Square until September, Merritt credited his role as an insider. "I think the judge gave me some professional courtesy," mused Merritt. "He realized we're both kind of in the same line of work law enforcement. I'm just on the low end of the totem pole."
Merritt may indeed live on a rung that most people would consider lowly out of work and short on money, he rarely eats but is reluctant to accept handouts. He walks everywhere because he can't pay subway fare. He represents himself in court, and submits handwritten legal papers. But he's smart enough to quote from Abraham Lincoln and to win an extra month's tenancy from a landlord who wants him gone yesterday. A user who was used first by law enforcement authorities and then by a well-regarded social service agency, Merritt is now trying to bring his own sense of justice to the fore a justice he admits is partly rooted in vengeance.
"I don't consider myself a snitch or something; I do it because I was betrayed," says Merritt, reflecting broadly on his career as a confidential informant. He says he first became a CI at the Kenmore to avenge dealers who had hooked him. He was happy to continue the work at the Times Square, but feels cheated out of an offer he claims Common Ground made to him to become a paying tenant when the investigation ended; Haggerty says no such deal was made. Now, Merritt says, he's whistle-blowing on Common Ground.
Is Merritt telling the truth? Of the half dozen law enforcement types who have worked with him, from high-ranking federal agents and prosecutors to NYPD cops and detectives, one calls him "a habitual liar" who is "very manipulative." But others describe Merritt as "decent and trustworthy," call his work "helpful," and say his information is "super reliable. On a scale of one to 10, I'd give Tony a 12."
When Merritt arrived in New York City on a bus in 1982, he wasn't looking for a gig as a police informant. With a high school degree, two years of business school, and no wife or children, Merritt says he ditched his job as a real estate manager in his home state, which he asked not be disclosed to protect family members. "Being raised in the mountains, it was always my dream to come to the big city with the bright lights," says Merritt. "Even the stuff you saw on TV: the millions of people, the gang lifestyle. . . . "
Merritt quickly became entrenched in the city's underbelly. He says he quit a job as a Harlem property manager when a landlord asked him to torch squatter-occupied buildings. Merritt moved on to real estate management in the South Bronx. As he tells it, his life changed on one spring night on Friday the 13th he doesn't remember which year when he went out for cigarettes. "Fifteen kids jumped me at the front door of Bronx-Lebanon hospital and stabbed me in the back of the head and through my heart," says Merritt. "They broke my jaw with a brick. I almost died."
After a long surgery and a hospital stay, Merritt says he feared returning to his South Bronx apartment. He took the subway to Manhattan, and ended up living in Madison Square Park for a year. In excruciating pain from the stabbing, Merritt says he found relief in the local analgesic of choice, crack.
"The doctors wanted to give me Demerol, but I remembered it was supposed to be highly addictive," Merritt says, recalling a lesson he says he learned in his job as a "postmortem technician" who assisted in autopsies as part of government research on aortas; Merritt says his task was to remove hearts from dead children. "I didn't want to be addicted, but the pain was so bad and a friend said, 'Tony, if you smoke this you won't feel pain. Take a hit.' Well, I just kept on hitting."
Merritt eventually got a room at the Kenmore in 1987 by offering to be a security guard for then owner Tran Dinh Truong, from whom the feds eventually seized the property. "The Kenmore was a crack haven then, and at first, I enjoyed that," says Merritt, who says he sobered up in fits and starts. "But when I got off it, I got extremely angry with the dealers and all their cars and gold that I'd probably paid for with my habit."
By 1991, the crack-wracked Kenmore was the focus of city and federal narcotics agents, and Merritt offered them his services as an insider. He eventually became an official confidential informer for the NYPD, although he was using drugs for some of that time. Public documents show Merritt's last drug case was in February 1997, when he was arrested for possession of crack that cops say Merritt spit out of his mouth as they approached him one afternoon on a downtown avenue. The charges were reduced to disorderly conduct, perhaps because of his cooperation with the police. Says one source familiar with the Kenmore at the time, "It seemed to me like Tony never got locked up when he should have."
Merritt calls himself a confidential police operative and takes the job seriously. He has two code names: Tony Baretta, based on his love of birds, and Tony Rico, based on the law cited by a Kenmore tenant who sued Merritt and a host of government officials. He says he painstakingly follows police protocol, which requires him to observe drugs in a person's possession at least twice within five days, and to report that to police within three days of the last sighting. He even made his own forms to make it easier for detectives to get warrants. He is paid for his work the rate is determined by the amount of drugs recovered in a bust but says he doesn't do it for the money. In his seven-month stint at the Times Square, Merritt says he made about $850.
"I could collect cans and bottles and make more money, your honor," he told Kramer. "But my life has been dedicated to trying to get rid of drug dealers because of what happened to me. . . . I've had more than 700 people arrested. I'm very good at what I do."
When Common Ground took over the Times Square in 1990, the hotel was crime-ridden. The nonprofit ultimately won millions of government dollars (and mountains of glowing press reviews) for turning the hotel into a much lauded "social experiment" in housing tenants troubled by substance abuse, mental illness, and homelessness. The effort had made Haggerty and her 652-room hotel media darlings and powerful figures in the world of nonprofit social-service agencies, a cosmos that has burgeoned as welfare has become a private rather than government endeavor.
But in about 1996, Haggerty sensed trouble, according to testimony she gave in Merritt's housing court case where Merritt, working as his own attorney, questioned her on the stand. About two years before Merritt was brought in, Haggerty said, drug trafficking began to percolate; she said two tenants were key. Haggerty enlisted the NYPD, and in 1997, undercover cops came in "to see if they could be successful," Haggerty said. "But they kind of looked like undercover cops, so they weren't." That's when police suggested a scheme to bring Merritt to the Times Square as a "tenant" working as their informer.
On August 8, 1998, Merritt was set up in room 440 of the Times Square. On September 10, cops raided the SRO and arrested seven people. On September 24, another raid yielded six crack arrests. A story in The New York Times, which is the hotel's neighbor a few doors east and a loyal fan of Common Ground, reported the arrests as part of an ongoing effort to rid the building of drugs. Haggerty told the Times the raid was sending a message of "zero-tolerance" for drug dealing.
The raids continued, and in all, police say 49 arrests were made when the investigation ended in late March well before the job was complete, Merritt says. "The problem is, I did my job too well, and they were worried because I have names of 53 other people who should be arrested for drugs," he says.
Haggerty testified that she did call Captain Kenneth Kelleher of the Manhattan South Narcotics unit to tell him that she wanted the investigation stopped. (Kelleher declined to comment for this story.) Merritt asked if she also called a contact in the D.A.'s office. "No," testified Haggerty. "It was not his investigation. It was the police, so the police were the ones we had to deal with on the termination of the investigation."
Merritt took Haggerty's response as an admission of interference, sending him offtrack. He lost his line of questioning, and when he resumed, Haggerty refined her answers, saying she had only sought Kelleher's "advice" about the investigation's progress and about "when we thought we could safely terminate the investigation. . . . It had everyone there [at the hotel] on pins and needles," she said, adding that the investigation, while necessary, "had a traumatic downside." But she repeatedly denied that she feared uncovering a widespread drug problem that could jeopardize Common Ground. Kramer dismissed Merritt's allegation regarding interference with the investigation as irrelevant to his housing case.
Haggerty told Kramer that Merritt's complaints began only when he was asked to move out after the investigation ended. "This is someone who has spent the last three months tormenting me and our staff," she told Kramer. "It is a very sad and troubling situation."
For his part, Kramer said he was disturbed by three flyers distributed at the Times Square, two of which called Haggerty a drug lord. "This is pretty wild stuff," Kramer admonished Merritt, who agreed, but said he was not the author of the flyers. Shortly thereafter, in what was fast becoming a bizzare housing court proceeding, Merritt raised his shirt to show Kramer the road map of scars on his chest caused by the Bronx beating. He had been arguing that he needed more time at the Times Square because he requires surgery for a bone infection in his jaw. Haggerty said she's already given Merritt extensions and that he had failed to prove he needs medical attention.
Merritt did not take the stand in the case. Kramer ruled that Common Ground was in fact right: Merritt was never a tenant and had no right to stay. "For whatever reason, this investigation was called off in March of 1999," Kramer said. "They asked you to vacate and you did not do that. Quite frankly, I understand why you did not do that because I suspect in reality . . . you had no where else to go."
Kramer postponed Merritt's eviction until September 10. And he called the Times Square's forbidding Merritt to have visitors "heinous." (Merritt says a relative who came to visit was not allowed in his room.)
"Desperate people do desperate things," Kramer summed up. "Here's a person who now says he has nowhere to go and could potentially be homeless. He did serve a very useful purpose. He put himself in harm's way. I'm not defending what he did afterward. . . . I'm just suggesting that you treat Mr. Merritt with respect."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.
- Uncut: A Look at the Wacky, Wrinkly World of Foreskin Restoration
Fri., Oct. 9, 7:00pm
Fri., Oct. 9, 7:30pm
Sat., Oct. 10, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 10, 8:00pm
- A New Video Game Lets You Experience Life as Pizza Rat
- Groups Stage All-Female Hackathons to Encourage Women to Enter Tech Fields