Shocking twist in Crown Heights “deed theft” case
Family’s attorney drops claim after evidence suggests grandson was in on deal
An eviction drama that shook Crown Heights has taken an unexpected turn.
An attorney for Ida Robinson, a 98-year-old who alleges a real estate operative stole her row house and evicted her, withdrew a motion alleging fraud.
Adam Birnbaum, who joined Robinson’s cause on a referral from Attorney General Letitia James, dropped the claim less than two months after filing it. The case had drawn widespread attention after tenant activists moved the Robinsons back into the townhouse shortly after they were evicted in February.
Robinson’s granddaughter Sherease Torain said Birnbaum’s move shocked the family. The attorney didn’t tell them in advance and Torain said she hasn’t been able to reach him since.
“That is not the normal process, to withdraw the entire case as if he was really just trying to set us up to fail,” Torain said.
Birnbaum declined to comment on his decision. However, it came days after the limited liability company that acquired Robinson’s home at 964 Park Place submitted evidence suggesting Robinson’s grandson was in on the deal.
The exhibits allege the grandson, Ali Torain, orchestrated the $800,000 sale of his grandmother’s home, signed off on the terms of an onerous “buy-back” agreement and received money from the deal.
Still, Sherease Torain is adamant that deed theft occurred.
“We never sold our home,” she said. “They stole our home.”
The alleged fraud dates back to June 2015 when Robinson signed what she believed to be a refinancing agreement. But records show Robinson’s signature on a sale contract that reduced the longtime homeowner to a tenant with the option to repurchase her home for $1.4 million.
Robinson claims she never authorized anyone to sell her home and did not execute documents transferring the title. Her granddaughter, backed by the Crown Heights Tenant Union, alleged that her grandmother’s name was forged on the deed, which is not notarized.
An affidavit submitted by Robinson’s daughter Helen Robinson describes Ali Torain’s involvement in the deal.
Torain was introduced to the idea of refinancing through a financial adviser he met named Richard Wright, according to Robinson. Wright said by taking out a new mortgage, the family could free up extra capital. Torain ran the idea by his mother and grandmother, Robinson wrote.
On June 18, 2015, the family met with Wright as well as a mortgage broker, two attorneys and Hezi Torati, the then-owner of 964 Park Place LLC. One of the attorneys, Yariv Katz, was introduced to the Robinsons as their counsel.
After some deliberations, Robinson said Torain signed the documents first, then passed them to his mother and grandmother.
“I believe that my son Ali trusted Mr. Wright,” Robinson wrote.
But when the meeting ended, the family walked out without a check in hand, which Robinson said she found “odd.” She said Torain later told her and his grandmother that funds would come in the next day.
Yet apart from a $10,000 check Torain said he received that bounced, Ida Robinson says she received only a sum that paid off an outstanding $415,700 mortgage on the home, according to Helen Robinson.
Documents submitted by attorneys for 964 Park Place LLC tell a different tale.
Wright claims in his affidavit that Ali Torain told him that a company his mother operates out of the family home — Queen Afua Wellness Center — was having “some financial difficulties.” The family needed cash to settle up with creditors, according to Wright, but credit issues prevented a traditional refinancing.
Wright advised Torain to look into a buy-back option: The family could sell the home, rent it and still have the chance to repurchase it in the future.
Torati, the LLC owner, said in an affidavit that Ali Torain characterized Queen Afua as “very successful” and assured him “that it would earn more than enough money to exercise the [buyback] option.” Torati also claims that Torain’s mother and grandmother gave the grandson the green light to go through with the sale.
Before the parties signed, Torain said he “made sure to once again explain to them that this was a transaction involving the sale of the property and they would become tenants with the option to repurchase the property.”
A paper trail of direct deposits and wire transfers indicates that much of the missing funds from the sale ended up in Ali Torain’s possession.
The money trail
According to Torati’s affidavit, after the June signing, Torain requested $5,500 cash from the transaction and two checks totaling $9,500 made out to two companies: Tentcraft and Black Lotus Development.
Email receipts show Torati’s firm Amerevision confirmed funds were delivered to each recipient on June 25, 2015.
Within the next few days, the limited liability owner wired $137,500 to Torain’s attorney Katz, bank statements show. A separate statement reveals Katz then sent $126,000 to an account at Torain’s direction, according to Torati.
But after those transfers, Torati attests the family attempted to “unwind” the sale to accept a higher bid. Torati’s firm sued Ida Robinson in response, but Helen Robinson alleges neither she nor her mother knew they’d been named in litigation.
Court records show a process server presented the summons to Torain on July 15, noting that the man had a mustache and beard. Torain denied that he was served, writing, “I was clean shaven at the time.”
“I can only assume that whoever prepared this document relied on an outdated photo of me they found online,” Torain wrote. “Whoever accepted these documents, if in fact they were ever even brought to the house, it was not me.”
Ultimately, Andre Soleil, an attorney who was later disbarred for allegations of deed theft, represented the Robinsons in the transaction and signed a settlement with Torati that would give the family more time to buy back their home and pay their broker’s fees.
That’s one of the agreements Ida Robinson denies executing. Her daughter Helen Robinson alleges that Soleil “signed that document without my mother’s permission or approval.”
Property records show ownership of the home transferred on Sept. 17, 2015.
Receipts from that same day show Torati wired $415,700 to the Robinsons’ mortgage servicer to pay off an existing mortgage and $214,476 to their attorney Yariv Katz for the balance of the purchase price.
A statement from Katz’s account shows the attorney then wired $197,476 to Queen Afua Wellness Center the next day.
Ali Torain did not respond to a request for comment.
Sticking to their guns
Sherease Torain and the Crown Heights Tenants Union allege that the money was sent to consummate a sale that never occurred.
“They stole the deed first,” Torain said.
The family and advocates argue that Robinson did not close on the sale during the June 15 meeting or on Sept. 17, that her signature was forged on two versions of the deed, and that neither was notarized.
Torain noted that a report by former Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance characterized public notaries as the “first line of defense for combating real estate deed fraud” and that in every deed theft case that has come before the New York State Supreme Court grand jury “a notary public was a willing or unwitting facilitator in the crime.”
The Robinsons also argue that the number of cases filed against the LLC and Torati, and the steps taken to confuse the trail of ownership, are further evidence of deed theft.
After Torati created 964 Park Place LLC to buy Robinson’s home, he promptly changed the ownership to a second landlord, which then transferred the property to the current landlord Menachem Gurevitch.
Such quick ownership transfers are common in deed theft schemes because it is hard to prove that subsequent purchasers knew about the fraud, and thus courts are reluctant to undo their purchases. Birnbaum initially filed a document showing the transactions involving Robinson’s property fit that pattern.
In the month after Robinson sat in Torati’s office to purportedly sell her home, Torati’s financing partner Artists Capital sued 964 Park Place LLC, alleging that to secure a $200,000 mortgage, it falsely told Artists the LLC had closed on 964 Park Place. The complaint alleges that the LLC, then used the loan for personal use and only put a fraction toward the property.
“This is a case of fraud,” the complaint begins.
However, court records show that action was discontinued on Sept. 17, 2015, the closing date listed on the 964 Park Place deed.
In a separate suit, brokerage CPA Realty claims that Torati pushed an agent to grant him power of attorney so that “he would be able to retain the commission due CPA Realty.” Torati ultimately settled that case in February 2020, agreeing to pay the brokerage $67,500. But nearly two years later, CPA Realty filed a notice of default, claiming Torati has only paid about half of that.
Torati’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.
With Birnbaum off the case, Sherease Torain said she is close to getting her grandmother a new lawyer and will continue trying to prove deed theft and unwind the transactions that cost the family ownership of 964 Park Place.
Last Friday, Torain submitted a letter to the court asking that it keep the case marked as active.