By Candace Taylor
A female impostor illegally took over three Upper East Side buildings
after the death of her landlord ex-boyfriend and collected rent from at
least one unwitting tenant, authorities said.
Flora Soto, 54, is being held on a $250,000 bond following her arraignment today in Manhattan Criminal Court on 21 felony counts of forgery, grand larceny, criminal possession of a forged instrument, offering a false instrument for filing and scheme to defraud, according to the district attorney’s office.
The buildings, at 224 East 81st Street, where she lives, 405 East 90th Street and 313 East 61st Street, are still owned by the estate of Fred Ziess, the ex-boyfriend who died seven years ago, the trustee of Ziess’ estate, his brother Alan, said.
Soto, who was represented at her arraignment by Victor Castelli of the Legal Aid Society, is being held in lieu of a $250,000 bond or $100,000 in cash and will appear in court next Wednesday. Castelli could not immediately be reached for comment, but Pat Bath, a spokesperson for the Legal Aid, said: “We will conduct a thorough investigation of the charges against our client.”
Soto circulated letters and held meetings informing tenants that she was the new landlord, according to the criminal complaint. She also “demanded rent,” from tenants, the criminal complaint says, collecting more than $1,000 in rent from at least one tenant. Ziess said the small payout may have been because Soto had a difficult time convincing tenants to pay her the rent.
“She would knock on doors and demand rent,” said Mark Bederow, the attorney representing the Ziess estate. “She tried to take over vacant apartments in her own building. She changed the locks and hired her own painter. One can only suspect that her intent was to rent them. It’s brazen to a level that’s rarely seen.”
After the death of Fred Ziess, the owner of a portfolio of buildings in Manhattan, Soto filed a lawsuit claiming ownership of the three Upper East Side buildings, the complaint says, but a judge ruled that she did not own them.
Ziess said Soto likely went to the office of the city register and filed false documents showing her to be the buildings’ owner, and a deed in her name was recorded, which helped her to pose as the building landlord in dealings with city and state agencies and attempt to collect rent from tenants.
“Once a criminal records the deed, they can do all kinds of damage,” Bederow said.
Ziess said he’s spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars battling Soto’s claims of ownership, even after the lawsuit was decided in his favor. He said he approached the city’s register’s office, the police and the DA several times but didn’t get far because Soto had the deed to the property.
“If she doesn’t own the building, how does she have a deed?” he recalled being told by officials. “It’s a nightmare,” he added.
Bederow the attorney said the office of the city register doesn’t require clerks to verify the information before recording deeds, and that more safeguards should be put in place to make it harder for criminals to commit deed fraud.
“How do people like her just show up one day at the city register’s office and the next day own three buildings?” Bederow said. “It’s mind-boggling to me.”
Looking at the ease with which building ownership can be established, the New York Daily News published a story in December about how a newspaper staffer was successfully able to “steal” the Empire State building by submitting bogus paperwork to the city to transfer the deed to the property to him.
Ziess, the buildings’ trustee, said he wasn’t able to get mortgages or refinance his buildings because of Soto’s claims to the properties.
“She was stealing the buildings in plain view of everyone,” he said.
Soto was investigated by the Manhattan DA’s office when she allegedly filed affidavits to lift lis pendens from the buildings, forging the signature of Joshua Price — one of Ziess’ attorneys — the complaint says. A clerk was suspicious and called Price, leading to an investigation by the DA’s detective squad, who arrested Soto yesterday.