Building has been vacant for 18 years
For years, Carolyn Johnson watched the building at 131 W. 122nd St. and yearned to make it her own.
“I live on the block,” said Johnson. “It’s a beautiful building, a really great building.”
So when the owner, Raymond Springer, died of cardiovascular disease in April 1994 and his sole survivor, an aunt, died two months after him, it seemed Johnson might just get her wish.
It didn’t work out that way.
Eighteen years later, the building is still vacant and Johnson, a senior project leader with the New York Liquidation Bureau and owner of the Welcome to Harlem tour company, has spent years in court battling a cast of characters claiming ownership of the building.
Raymond Springer bought and incorporated the building in 1979, issuing 200 shares in 131 West 122 Street Corp. He lived in the building all his life, using it as an SRO. Most friends and neighbors believe he died with no heirs and left no will.
According to documents provided by Johnson (among them Springer’s death certificate and initial certificate of incorporation), Springer’s corporation was dissolved for nonpayment of taxes in 1982.
After Springer’s death, tenants tried to run the building. In 1995, they got the city’s Housing Preservation Department to appoint an administrator to oversee operations and repairs.
“I knew the tenants were in there and he died,” said Johnson. “The tenants were like, ‘Yeah, we’re trying to figure out it out. We’re managing the building ourselves.’ ”
The building came up for back taxes again in 2000, and then things got interesting.
A man, Michael Miller, came forward and claimed to be Raymond Springer’s son — and owner of the building. Miller produced a stock transfer certificate dated Feb. 13, 1979, and a stock transfer agreement dated March 1980, both signed by Springer, in which Springer transferred all 200 corporation shares to Miller.
Miller also produced a copy of the minutes from the March 20, 1980, annual shareholders meeting of 131 West 122 Street Corp.
According to the documents, Miller contacted Yvonne Stafford of Stafford Realty in Harlem and told her he wanted to sell the building.
Miller reincorporated the building as “131 West 122 Street Corporation” in March 2000. Stafford bought the building from Miller on May 5, 2000, for $330,000.
Johnson sued to stop the sale, and had the three documents analyzed by experts. Handwriting expert Julia Bevacqua determined that the signature were not genuine because “a signature is never executed exactly the same by anyone unless it is reproduced by a mechanical type method such as an autopen or by computer-generated software having a signature option.”
Additionally, Matthew Carter, a type designer, submitted an affidavit testifying that he did not create the Tahoma typeface in which the 1980 stock transfer and meeting minutes are written until December 1995.
Stafford purchased the building from Miller with a mortgage from Interstate Resources Corporation of Newburgh, N.Y. Interstate, a subprime lender, was one of four mortgage companies named in a scheme in which mortgages were taken out on homes without the owners consent.
In 2008, 17 people were charged in the scheme, including the alleged ringleader, Gail Cromer, 43, of Queens — who also represented Miller when he sold 131 W. 122nd St. to Stafford.
According to state tax documents, Stafford’s mortgage on the property was later assigned to Equicredit Corporation of Jacksonville, Fla. — another of the sub-prime lenders named in the 2008 mortgage scheme.
Both Interstate Resources and Equicredit Corporation have since gone out of business.
In January 2002, Stafford deeded the building over to developer Gregory Pascal, who had developed numerous Harlem properties under HPD’s Neighborhood Entrepreneurship Program.
Stafford called her dealings with the property “a doggone nightmare. I was thinking I could get into the building and get a loan (to renovate it.) Then, here comes Miss Johnson, who was not family or a relative and had no standing in the property, saying I am not the right person for the building.
“If I did something wrong, I didn’t know it, and if something wrong was done by people around me I was not aware of it,” said Stafford, who has written a book,“From Fast Foods To Slow Foods; How To Wake Up Laughing,” for sale on Amazon.com.
Miller’s cell phone number was not in service.
Pascal has since died, leaving 131 W. 122nd St. as part of his estate.
It is unclear who has title to the property, which still stands vacant.