This article was originally published by The CITY on March 7
Dozens of Jackson Heights tenants, still displaced nearly a year after blaze, say the NYPD won’t allow them to report their belongings stolen — and demand justice.
Dozens of tenants displaced by a massive fire in a Queens building nearly a year ago say their apartments were burglarized, but police refuse to allow them to report their belongings stolen, according to the building’s tenant association.
At least 50 apartments have been burglarized since an electrical fire erupted in the six-floor building on 34th Avenue and 89th Street in Jackson Heights last spring, according to Andrew Sokolof Diaz, the tenant association president.
“The police will not allow us to file stolen property reports,” Sokolof Diaz told THE CITY.
The April 6, 2021 fire torched upper-level apartments, injured 21 people and displaced more than 140 households — about 500 New Yorkers. While top floor apartments were destroyed by fire, others below were ruined by the water used to fight the blaze.
In September, THE CITY reported that dozens of tenants of the 133-unit building sued the owner and various agencies in Housing Court, demanding that repairs be done in a timely manner so that families could retrieve their belongings and return home.
A judge has since issued the owner, Kedex Properties LLC, a series of deadlines to finish repairs, ultimately ruling on Nov. 23: “All work must be completed and ready for occupancy” by January 2023.
By November, many tenants from one wing of the building had yet to gain access to their apartments and were only able to glimpse inside for the first time since the fire through photos that appeared in mold and damage reports in court records. Several dozen residents from the other wing had received permission to enter their units and retrieve personal items months earlier.
Since January, tenants from the still-restricted wing have been able to view their apartments via directed video calls with building contractors inside.
In those calls, tenants noticed certain valuables were not in their spots. That fueled fears of residents who said they had for months alerted police to suspicious behavior in and around the building — specifically by security guards and contractors with access.
“Things have clearly been rummaged and ransacked,” said Sokolof Diaz, noting photos and videos show their apartments left in disarray, with mattresses flipped, closets and drawers opened, momentos strewn about and safes forcibly broken into.
When asked why tenants were unable to file police reports, an NYPD spokesperson did not offer an explanation but noted “complaint reports are recorded based on a preliminary investigation and information provided by the complainant.”
“A complaint report can be made by calling 911, approaching an officer or requesting a police report at a police facility,” said the spokesperson, Lt. Jessica McRorie.
She also said police reports for crimes and incidents can be made online.
THE CITY spoke with 10 tenants who said they believed their belongings were stolen when they finally saw inside their apartments through photos and videos.
“What little we were supposed to recover is gone,” said Neyilia Rodríguez, 56, who lived in a second-floor unit with her husband, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren.
A photo in court records showed her son-in-law’s electric bike in their apartment. But when Rodríguez had a video call with a contractor, the bike was gone, she said, along with money, a phone, jewelry and her daughter’s permanent makeup equipment.
In November, when Catherine Palaguachi saw photos of her moldy, water-damaged second-floor apartment for the first time, she spotted valuables worth saving.
“We were able to see our piggy banks,” said Palaguachi, 32, a mother of three and lifelong resident of the building who’d moved into her own unit just before the fire.
She saw a few of the “piggy banks” — only one was shaped like a pig but they all contained significant sums of money, she said — in her apartment and her parents’ on the third floor.
But when Palaguachi and her folks saw their units during a recent video call, the piggy banks, along with jewelry and other valuables, were missing.
“Everything of value was taken,” she said.
Jadde Fernandez said when she had a video call to look through her second-floor apartment last month, she discovered several valuables missing, including jewelry, photos and a baseball signed by former Yankees coach Joe Torre.
She said her three-bedroom unit appeared to have been pillaged, but she did recover a few priceless possessions, including a surfboard and her dad’s ashes.
“I had them in an urn and I had them in a special pouch, and they were taken out of that pouch and outside of the urn,” said Fernandez, 39, whose family has lived in the building since the 1960s. “They literally went into my urn to take the ashes out.”
She vividly remembers her home before the robbery, she said. During the 12-hour battle against the fire, she slipped by first responders twice to get inside the burning building to try to rescue her cats, Jah and Mr. Poker Chipz. As she waded through water in her apartment, she found them dead.
“It’s been very traumatic for me,” Fernandez said.
‘Impossible to File’
Sokolof Diaz said some tenants did successfully submit police reports early on, such as a 32-year-old, first-floor resident who filed one after multiple attempts shortly after the fire.
The woman, who did not want her name published, told THE CITY that a week after the fire she discovered credit cards and her 13-year-old son’s iPad were missing. Meanwhile, expensive purchases she didn’t make appeared on card statements and her Apple iCloud account showed her son’s device on and at a nearby address.
After cops took the report, she said, “they didn’t want to go looking for it” because they weren’t sure if it was lost before the fire. She said she hasn’t received any updates in nearly a year.
Many others haven’t even gotten that far, according to the tenant leader, with several meeting stiff resistance at the 115th Precinct on Northern Boulevard. Sokolof Diaz said officers have refused to take reports for a variety of reasons, including questioning how residents could know their property was stolen if they had not gone inside yet.
“They’re not allowing us to file reports,” he said, noting that jewelry, cell phones and laptops were stolen from the unit he shares with his mother, wife and 1-year-old son.
Mike Litardo, 24, said when he saw inside his apartment through a video call in January, jewelry, sunglasses, Supreme clothing and a collection of Jordan sneakers were missing. He estimated the losses totaled between $10,000 and $15,000.
“I’m more than sure if it was the next day or the following day or even if it would have been within a month, nothing would have gone bad,” said Litardo, who is staying at his grandmother’s home in Jackson Heights until tenants are allowed to return.
Litardo, who lived on the building’s second floor with his mother, said they tried to report their items stolen to officers at the 115th Precinct in January, but got nowhere.
“We spent about three, four hours of our day and got nothing out of it,” he said.
On a second attempt later that month, an officer told them detectives were unavailable to assist them in making a report but to come back another time, Litardo said.
“It seems like it’s impossible to file police reports,” he said, adding: “Nobody wants to basically give us a police report. They’re just taking our time.”
Rodríguez said when she and her daughter recently tried to file a report at the precinct, she felt ignored as a Spanish speaker. She remained silent as her daughter spoke to an officer in English. Despite serving an enormous Latino population in Jackson Heights, East Elmhurst and North Corona, the precinct had no Spanish speakers available, she said.
Word has spread among tenants about the hassles of reporting items stolen, deterring some from going to police. Palaguachi, for example, said she hasn’t bothered to report her family’s belongings stolen after hearing about her neighbors’ experiences.
Some tenants, a portion of whom are unbanked, kept life savings inside their apartment, according to Sokolof Diaz. When some of them discovered money missing, they skipped telling the police due to personal reasons or general mistrust, he said.
‘We Want Justice’
McRorie, the NYPD spokesperson, said the precinct’s commanding officer is “working with the tenant association to address this issue.”
Sokolof Diaz confirmed cops emailed the 89th Street Tenants Unidos on Feb. 18 to set up a meeting about filing police reports. No date has been confirmed yet, he said.
“We are dozens of families who have been robbed of our belongings after losing our home,” Sokolof Diaz said in a text. “We shouldn’t have to have meetings to exercise our right to file police reports, there’s nothing else to discuss but for the police to do their jobs and document these crimes.”
Several tenants said the building’s owner and hired security guards epicly failed to protect their belongings in the 11 months since the fire.
Landlords Kedex Properties did not respond to THE CITY’s multiple requests for comment.
Tenants said they have questioned whether any security guards or contractors with access to the building post-fire were involved in the string of alleged burglaries. Talk has also swirled among tenants that security guards may have accepted bribes from people itching to go inside to retrieve their valuables.
Other buildings have been targeted by burglars following fires. In November, $14,000 worth of items — including electronics and a wedding ring — were stolen from a Bronx apartment following a fire that killed a 6-year-old boy, the New York Post reported.
Tenants said they alerted the police about their concerns of suspicious behavior around the building, beginning just after the fire, but their calls weren’t taken seriously enough.
Fernandez, the longtime tenant, said she witnessed suspicious activity around the building — like lights on inside at 4 a.m. — and reported it to the police a handful of times since the summer. She said she has even confronted and filmed a worker who was taking full “Hefty bags” out of the building and putting them into his truck.
“You become very numb,” she said, referring to how she felt since receiving lackluster law enforcement responses and perceiving a lack of political will to aid tenants.
Sokolof Diaz said several local politicians seem to have forgotten about his family and the hundreds of his neighbors in need, but noted that State Assemblymember Jessica González-Rojas (D-Queens) has continued to be a reliable advocate.
González-Rojas told THE CITY that she has pushed for their needs on everything from helping to place them in temporary housing to ensuring they could access their belongings to speaking to the police about the tenants’ current concerns.
She said she spoke with representatives of the precinct and the tenant association — and heard conflicting accounts so the police “need to remedy this, immediately.”
“There’s absolutely no excuse to not provide the reports to the families in need,” she said in a phone interview. “So I’m going to be following up with the police department and we’re coordinating a meeting to get to the bottom of what was going on here.”
Meanwhile, tenants from the rent-stabilized building are scattered in and outside the borough of Queens, living in hotels or with relatives, while others have moved out of the city, state and even country, Sokolof Diaz noted.
Rodríguez, who’s been living in a hotel in East Elmhurst with her family, said they’re rebuilding their lives from scratch.
She called on more officials to step up for her and her neighbors, saying that when they knocked on their doors and asked for their votes, tenants answered the call.
“Now we want your help,” she said in Spanish, fighting back tears, her voice quivering. “Help us so that justice is done. We want justice. That is the word — justice.”
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