What to Know
- Prosecutors allege the landlord and contractors wanted the family out so they could renovate the apartment to command higher rent
- The trio began construction on the building -- removing floors, walls and fire escapes -- while the family still lived there, court docs say
- Defendants also threatened to reveal the family's status as undocumented immigrants, according to court papers
A landlord and two contractors intentionally created "life-threatening" conditions at an East Harlem apartment to push a couple and their five young children out of their rent-stabilized home, prosecutors say.
The landlord and East 115th Street building owner, Ephraim Vashovsky, along with property manager and contractor Adam Cohen, 32, and contractor Shaoul Ohana, 56, allegedly made conditions perilous and unlivable for the parents and their children, who range in age from 1 to 12, including leaving them without water and heat and the building at risk of structural collapse.
According to an indictment announced Tuesday, the trio conducted ongoing illegal construction and renovation at the apartment, and harassed and intimidated the family, threatening to report their status as undocumented immigrants, in a conspiratorial effort to get them to leave or pay more.
"These defendants are charged with turning an East Harlem apartment building into a death trap,” Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance said in a statement. “They forced a family with five young children to endure life-threatening conditions on some of winter’s coldest nights. As demolition continued around apartment 5E, the entire building was at risk of a devastating fire, or worse, collapse."
The alleged concerted effort against the family began shortly after Vashovsky acquired the building in May 2014, according to court documents. Vashovsky and his associates wanted the family out so they could make renovations to the building that would allow the units to command higher rents, court papers say. Amid pending eviction proceedings and litigation, the defendants moved to begin construction while the family still inhabited the apartment.
In an effort to expedite the Department of Buildings work permit applications submitted by Ohana, Cohen allegedly submitted falsified documents purporting that the building was unoccupied, while the defendants simultaneously moved for the family’s eviction in housing court on the grounds that the apartment was overcrowded, court documents say. Based on the falsified filings, DOB approved a work permit in December 2014.
From the start of construction until March 2015, when the DOB ordered the building vacated, the defendants are charged with recklessly endangering the lives of the tenants and their children through ongoing construction and demolition. Prosecutors say the defendants knowingly created gravely dangerous living conditions, including the risk of an entire building collapse, by removing structural and load-bearing elements.
During demolition, the defendants allegedly removed critical fire retardant materials, fire escapes and internal walls and floors – creating the risk of someone falling multiple stories. They also purposefully failed to address or only partially addressed critical violations, including the lack of electricity, heat, hot water, and running water, the indictment says.
During this time, Vashovsky and Cohen collected and deposited the family’s rent checks while failing to meet the terms of their lease, prosecutors say. Vashovsky is also charged with continuing to deposit more than $1,000 in checks issued in the family’s name by the New York City Department of Social Services to subsidize the family’s rent payments. Vashovsky cashed the last check from the DSS on May 8, 2015, two months after the family vacated the apartment, the indictment says.
Vashovsky and Cohen are also accused of endangering the lives of the site's construction workers from February of this year until the DOB issued a full stop work order in March.
Information on attorneys for Vashovsky, Cohen and Ohana weren't immediately available. The 20-count indictment charges them with varying degrees of reckless endangerment, coercion, grand larceny, conspiracy, endangering the welfare of a child and other crimes.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s Asset Forfeiture Unit has filed a civil forfeiture lawsuit against the indicted defendants and their companies, seeking the forfeiture of more than $3 million in connection with the criminal case.