In 2005, a man named Enrico Mancini died in Brooklyn. He was 98 years old and had been ill for quite some time. He had outlived his wife as well as his only child. Mr. Mancini had come to Borough Park from Italy in the 1950s. There is a decades-old picture of him in court documents, standing in front of his house, 5017 17th Avenue—the one that is now in ruins. He had his arm around Mrs. Mancini in the picture: Proud immigrants who had found a foothold in the land of opportunity.
When Mr. Mancini died, the house and the rest of his estate passed into the control of one of his only remaining relatives, his daughter-in-law, Serafina Mancini, who, at the time, was in her 70s. Thinking 5017 17th Avenue seemed like an ideal place to spend her golden years, she made plans to move in. But when she arrived, she received a rude welcome from Mr.
Herbst, who announced that she was trespassing. To her shock, construction work had begun on the home. Mr. Herbst was in the midst of a full-blown project to integrate 5017 17th Avenue with his palatial house next door, 5019-5021 17th Avenue. It was as if one house were reaching out and grabbing its neighbor, the beams encircling the adjacent residence like tentacles. Intimidated, confused and distraught, she retreated to her lawyer, William Cahill, who specializes in estate work. What the hell was going on?
To Mr. Cahill’s amazement, a quick perusal of property records indicated that Mr. Herbst was actually telling the truth. Four days after Mr. Mancini’s death in August, the deed to 5017 17th Avenue had been quietly transferred into the name of Jacob and Malka Herbst, Mr. Herbst’s son and daughter-in-law, who live with him. Technically, Mr. Herbst was the owner of the Mancini home. And on top of that, a loan had been taken out on the property in the amount of $500,000. The lender was a company called Ay One, which, as it happens, Mr. Herbst himself controls.
Mr. Herbst had likely never paid a dime of this loan to Jacob and Malka, but Mr. Cahill immediately understood what had been done. Mr. Herbst, he said, had forged the deed to put the property in the couple’s hands and then placed a lien against it.
In theory, the problem could be easily solved. Mrs. Mancini would simply need to show that the documents were fraudulent and transfer the property back into her name. But that loan had added a layer of complexity: Even if Mrs. Mancini were recognized as the rightful owner, she would be unable to sell the home now that its title was sullied with Mr. Herbst’s lien. Besides that, he could come after her for the $500,000 he would claim to have lent against the house.
“At first we just thought he was the eccentric neighbor,” Mr. Cahill remembered. “Then we quickly got an idea what a severe character Mr. Herbst is.”
As The Observer soon found, Mr. Herbst is indeed an extraordinary character—a virtuoso at turning the city’s labyrinthine legal system to his own ends. If, as an examination of his dealings suggests, he is a huckster, he is an impressively creative one—an auteur of sorts, whose canvas is New York’s bureaucracy and courts system.
In surrogate’s court, where Serafina Mancini’s lawyer, Mr. Cahill, started a proceeding to wipe away the phony debt and deed, Mr. Herbst launched a vigorous counterattack. Mrs. Mancini wasn’t a sweet old woman, he asserted, but a disloyal in-law who never visited, even as Mr. Mancini grew frail and increasingly helpless.
“We were the ones who were taking care of him,” Mr. Herbst proclaimed during a telephone interview with The Observer. “He used to come over to our house every Friday night to have my wife’s chicken soup. How do you think he sustained so long? It was her soup!”
Mrs. Mancini was jealous of the relationship Mr. Herbst had with her father-in-law, Mr. Herbst said, telling The Observer she didn’t even come to visit Mr. Mancini during his final days. “Mr. Mancini told me, ‘Call them, I’m dying,’” Mr. Herbst claimed. “‘I’m dying, I want to see my grandaughters.’ But nobody came. I was so disappointed.”
Serafina Mancini’s lawyers scoffed at these claims.
“Mr. Mancini had failing eyesight and hearing, and he barely spoke or wrote any English,” Roy Martin, another attorney of Mrs. Mancini’s said. “He also hated Herbst.”
“Herbst had this Polaroid picture of him kind of propping Mancini up in his hospital bed, and there was a big smile on Herbst’s face,” Mr. Cahill said. “It was like this manufactured photo, ‘See how much he loved me?’”
In court Mr. Herbst claimed that Mr. Mancini had conveyed the house to him for $500,000 and then, shortly before his death, forgiven the debt.
“Ask yourself, what are the odds that a 98-year-old man conveys his house for no consideration?” Mr. Cahill asked rhetorically.
It did seem unlikely, but not impossible. And establishing the facts in court proved to be difficult. Mr. Herbst offered a simple resolution. There was a home health care aide who had lived with Mr. Mancini during his last years who could clear up the whole situation. She had borne witness to all the Friday night feasts at the Herbst household, to Mr. Mancini’s bitter disappointment with his relatives, and to how, ultimately, Mr. Mancini had handed Mr. Herbst his house free of charge because Mr. Herbst was his one true companion.
The only problem was the woman couldn’t be located.
“He’s very good at raising something where there’s a glimmer of truth,” Mr. Cahill said.
All the while, Mr. Herbst was moving ahead with his efforts to join the two houses, erecting 13 heavy-duty steel beams between the properties.
“I was sitting there in court and thinking to myself, what the fuck am I going to do now?” Mr. Cahill remembered. “The legal bills were going through the roof, he was destroying the house. It was a total nightmare.”
Mr. Herbst’s digressions and postponements were stringing out what should have been a routine series of determinations. “His mother must have died in Canada six times,” Mr. Cahill insisted.