Up in 4-B, The Crime Of a Lifetime
[New York Times,
29 October 2005
Wah-Hop Eng is 87 years old. A half-century ago, he came to New York by way of China and Hong Kong, and moved into an old red building at Third Avenue and East 89th Street. From that narrow, two-bedroom apartment, his American life unfolded.
He worked in a laundry, a Chinese restaurant and a grocery store. He and his wife, Yuk Ying, raised two children, Peter and Ava. Their children went to college and moved away. His wife died in 2003. And Mr. Eng was alone, save for an older brother in the same building. Yes, an older brother.
In June, Mr. Eng went on an extended trip. He visited his daughter in Toronto, and then his son in Massachusetts. Meanwhile, back in New York, a neighbor saw two men carrying furniture down the stairs early one morning.
''They weren't being particularly careful with these items,'' the neighbor recalled yesterday. ''Slamming them against the wall.''
One Saturday in mid-August, Mr. Eng boarded the bus for home. When he arrived at his fourth-floor apartment, he could not get in. Gone was the heavy-duty lock that his son had installed, and in its place, a lock in which his key would not fit. Then, he later told the police, one of the new landlords, Dominick Galofaro -- a man who wasn't born when Mr. Eng first moved in -- bum-rushed him out the door, saying: This is not your house. Go back to Boston.
A shaken Mr. Eng spent the night with his brother. The next day his son came down from Massachusetts and dialed 911. With his passport and with his mailbox key, the little bald man easily proved to the responding police officers that he was Wah-Hop Eng, the tenant in 4-B.
A few minutes later, Mr. Galofaro opened the door to reveal -- nothing.
Gone were the beds and cabinets, the televisions and fans, the lamps and phonograph. The rare records he had carried with him when he left China. The silver coins he collected while working in the laundry. His stamp collection; his 80-year-old ginseng wine; his medicinal herbs.
Gone, too, were traces of his wife. The videotapes and old family photographs. The pearl earrings, diamond rings, jade bracelets. The fur coat and silk skirts and dressing gowns and things that may still have carried her scent.
The landlord was charged with felony counts of grand larceny and burglary. He did not speak to the authorities, but his lawyer, Sam Schmidt, gave them the following explanation:
Dominick Galofaro shares ownership with his brother, Salvatore, who runs a food store in the same building and is more familiar with its operations. While Salvatore was in Italy, Dominick and the super traced the source of a leak to the rent-controlled apartment of Mr. Eng, who the super said was living in Massachusetts. They broke the lock, opened the door, and found an apartment filled with an old man's stuff.
''The apartment seems unattended to,'' Mr. Schmidt explained. ''So he has people move the furniture into the basement.''
Dominick Galofaro did not check the building records, which would have shown that Mr. Eng was current in his $158-a-month rent, and that he had left his son's telephone number in case of an emergency. ''He understands this was the wrong way to go about it,'' Mr. Schmidt said. ''This was a mistake.''
''Mistake'' falls short somehow. Remember those belongings moved to the basement? Gone, gone, gone. And the Galofaros have offered no explanation.
''He certainly has an inkling,'' said Mr. Schmidt, referring to Dominick Galofaro. ''But he's not going to make any allegations.''
Of course. Why would he?
PROSECUTORS dropped the burglary and larceny charges for lack of any evidence, and Dominick Galofaro pleaded guilty this week to illegal eviction, a misdemeanor. He will be sentenced soon to probation and community service.
Mr. Eng has filed a $13 million lawsuit against the Galofaros and is living with his son, who says his father is too frightened to return to the apartment.
Mr. Schmidt said that the man had rarely lived there anyway, and that his fear was ''ridiculous,'' since his brother lived in the building. He added that the landlords had offered to pay restitution, and that Mr. Eng's list of missing items was not particularly substantial -- monetarily speaking.
Funny, isn't it, how the life possessions of a man could vanish in Manhattan, just like that. Records and coins, photos and videos, furs and jewelry. Those things of his, those things of hers.
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