Attorney and police don’t see eye to eye in spy cameras case

(Jessica Berk indicated that she thinks the cameras may have been placed there partly just for her. Schwartz said the landlord also has filed a “nuisance suit” against her. Berk, in turn, has a history with the Sixth Precinct, having sued them at least twice for previous arrests.)   Photo by Jefferson Siegel
Arthur Schwartz in court in July — handcuffed behind his back — as he was given a return court date in connection with his confiscating five mini-security cameras at 95 Christopher St. Photo by Jefferson Siegel

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON  |  In July, Village District Leader Arthur Schwartz made headlines when he turned himself in for arrest at the Sixth Precinct for grand larceny. His alleged crime: taking five small surveillance cameras from a hallway at 95 Christopher St. that had been installed outside the apartment door of Ruth Berk, a nonagenarian longtime resident for whom he was acting as legal guardian.

Schwartz said he was simply trying to stop the landlord’s harassment of the senior chanteuse.

A return court date was set for Oct. 15.

So what has happened since Schwartz’s arrest?

For his part, Schwartz continues to maintain his innocence, saying he did not steal the cameras, not by the definition of the word. Meanwhile, police at the Sixth Precinct assert they followed the law to the letter in arresting him.

As for Berk, who recently turned 92, she simply continues to do what she loves best — sing.

Meanwhile, radical attorney Ron Kuby told The Villager he considers Schwartz nothing less than his “hero” for taking down the cameras.

Not long after removing the spy cams, Schwartz sent them to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s Tenant Harassment Unit, hoping to get the attorney general to investigate this case and other related ones. However, in the latest update, Schwartz recently reported that the A.G. has declined to take the case.

“Their Tenant Harassment Unit won’t get involved in cases involving one person being harassed,” he explained. “They only want serial harassers.”

In turn, the Manhattan district attorney asked the A.G. to turn over the cameras because they are integral to the grand jury proceeding, and the A.G. complied.

In addition, a judge scheduled a hearing to evaluate whether Schwartz should be removed as Berk’s guardian due to his arrest, but this was subsequently nixed.

“Adult Protective Services visited Ruth as part of that process and gave a glowing report,” Schwartz said. “Ruth gave a performance for her.”

Jessica Berk, Ruth’s daughter, who lives with her, said, “Mom recently celebrated 92 with a beautiful bouquet from the Village Apothecary, sparkling apple cider and a Verizon tablet from Mr. Schwartz — on which she was finally able to watch all her own press.”

Attorney is unworried
Schwartz, who is a top labor lawyer and a principal with the law firm Advocates for Justice, is not worried that he will be found guilty of grand larceny.

“If I got convicted of grand larceny, sure, I could get disbarred…suspended,” he said. “I’m really not concerned that I’m going to get convicted of intent to steal. And if you just google ‘steal,’ you’ll find ‘without permission to take surreptitiously for one’s own use.’ I was on camera when I took it. I did not take it for my own use.”

Jessica Berk videoed him as he took down the pinhole cams, which were mounted behind a sconce with five obvious holes punched in it for the devices to record through. Schwartz himself also filmed removing the cameras as he did it.

In addition, the Village activist attorney continues to maintain that the cameras’ value was not $1,000, as the police report states, but closer to $400, which would make it petty larceny, not grand larceny.

“Four of them were for $79 on Amazon.com and one of them was $119,” he said.

‘It was harassment’
He continues to assert that he was simply trying to stop Ruth Berk from being harassed by the landlord.

“If someone has a camera pointed at your apartment — actually five cameras — and you complain about it, and they keep doing it, it’s harassment,” he stated.

As for how he became Ruth Berk’s guardian in the first place, Schwartz was visiting a former ballerina, a tenant of his, who suffers from serious dementia, at a nursing home. In the next bed was Ruth Berk, who was there based on the intervention of the landlord, who is trying to evict the Berks from their rent-controlled penthouse apartment. It’s a complicated case that also involves Jessica Berk. But Schwartz said he immediately recognized there was clearly no reason for Ruth Berk to be in the nursing home.

Subsequently, Ruth Berk sang for a judge in court — belting out “Summertime” and “My Funny Valentine” — convincing the judge she was in her right mind, and was allowed to return home.

Took down spy cams
As part of the negotiations on the ongoing eviction case, court-ordered repairs, long overdue, were scheduled to be made to the Berks’ apartment in June. It was then that Jessica Berk pointed out the spy cams to Schwartz, and he took them down, leading to his eventual arrest.

When Schwartz subsequently turned himself in at the Sixth Precinct, he was handcuffed behind his back and driven down to central booking, where — after waiting four hours with his hands still cuffed — he was released on his own recognizance after being given a return court date.

Police: It’s just theft
Detective Jimmy Alberici, a Sixth Precinct community affairs officer, explained that the precinct “has nothing against Arthur Schwartz.”

The police know well that he is a local elected official and important community figure who has been a member of the Hudson River Park Advisory Council, among other things, Alberici said.

In short, though, the detective said, police don’t see this as a tenant harassment issue but rather as theft of property.

Based on the complaint filed by the building’s managing agent, Sophia Lamas, police initially put the cameras’ value at $4,000, but later “checked it” and lowered it to $1,000, the detective said. That amount, however, is still the threshold for grand larceny, which is why Schwartz was required to be handcuffed when he was taken down to court. Had the amount been lower, Schwartz could have gotten a desk-appearance ticket, allowing him to come down to court on a set date, not in handcuffs, and not escorted by police. As for being cuffed behind the back, that’s “standard,” Alberici said.

Police don’t take arresting someone for something like this lightly, and don’t arrest a person “for nothing,” he assured.

As for the cameras, not all five of them were pointed right at the door, he said, but were angled in different directions, with some aimed down the hallway and so forth.

(Jessica Berk indicated that she thinks the monitors may have been placed there partly just for her. Schwartz said the landlord also has filed a “nuisance suit” against her. Jessica Berk, in turn, has been detained and arrested in connection with incidents at the building in the past — including for taping over a security camera — which she says were on trumped-up accusations and charges. She has a history with the Sixth Precinct, having sued them at least twice for previous arrests.)

While her mother was known for her slinky dresses when she was a performer, Jessica Berk said this Lou Reed T-shirt, which she said she was given by famed rock photographer Bob Gruen, is more her own style. She used to work as a rock publicist. Photo by Lincoln Anderson
While her mother was known for her slinky dresses when she was a performer, Jessica Berk said this Lou Reed T-shirt, which she said she was given by famed rock photographer Bob Gruen, is more her own style. She used to work as a rock publicist. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Alberici said he has checked the case out with the Police Department’s legal department, and has been told that everything police have done so far is correct. 

Even if Schwartz himself documented his removing the cameras — and thus didn’t do it surreptitiously — and even if he didn’t keep them for himself, but gave them to the A.G., Alberici said, it doesn’t matter; it’s still stealing.

“He took it,” he said. “It was Arthur Schwartz’s decision to take those cameras.”

In addition, as to why Schwartz was taken to court in cuffs — which the attorney had hoped to avoid — Alberici said that Inspector Joseph Simonetti, the precinct’s new commanding officer, didn’t want to give Schwartz “special treatment,” as compared to other defendants.

The community affairs officer expects Schwartz will speak on his own behalf before the grand jury on Oct. 15, which, he said, may decide on that day whether or not to indict him.

‘We followed the law’
For his part, Inspector Simonetti has been a bit reluctant to comment on the case publicly, since Schwartz has been keeping up a steady drumbeat of “Simonetti Must Go!” in a local monthly publication.

The new C.O. only just arrived at the precinct in June. He led the police detail last week in Washington Square Park at the rally against the N.Y.U. 2031 plan and the university’s high tuition.

Asked then about the situation with Schwartz, Simonetti responded, “There’s no issue there. We were following police procedure. Our precinct detectives said they were following the law. We followed the law 150 percent.”

Brushing off further questions, he said he didn’t want to give a whole interview on the subject.

Kuby gives him kudos
Ron Kuby, the well-known activist attorney, is familiar with Schwartz’s case.

“My hero!” he crowed.

Regarding whether the cameras outside the Berks’ apartment represent harassment, Kuby said, as a general matter, landlords can monitor video surveillance of a building’s common areas. But pointing a camera right at a tenant’s door is a different matter, in his view.

“If they were to stick a person outside their door 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that would be viewed as harassment,” he said. “I believe actually ‘stalking’ is the criminal violation. Stalking is a form of harassment.”

Kuby disagreed that Schwartz stole the cameras.

“It certainly is not theft,” he said. “Theft is taking property from another person with the intent to presumably deprive them of the property. Whether it’s some lower-degree offense, I think the point is that Arthur Schwartz tied to stop the harassment of an elderly tenant who was harassed by her landlord; and he did, and I’m glad, and we need more people like him.

“They had been trying to get her out of that apartment. … You know, stop already. You’re not going to beat up an old lady, especially an old lady who is one of New York City’s little treasures. And Schwartz did what lawyers do, which is to put himself between the powerful and the powerless.

“I probably would have just smashed the cameras with a baseball bat,” Kuby quipped, “so he certainly used better judgement than I would have.”

As for Schwartz being handcuffed behind his back, Kuby said, “As a general rule, when making an arrest as opposed to issuing a summons, they handcuff.” And handcuffing behind the back is the norm, he added. And, like Simonetti, he said, it wouldn’t be right to make an exception in this case: “Why are you handcuffing the young black guy but not the white Jewish guy?”

Still singing
Meanwhile, the Berks continue to enjoy their 15th-floor apartment at the corner of Christopher and Bleecker Sts., whose terrace has a stunning panoramic view of Manhattan to the north, west and south.

Their formerly cluttered home is looking much better following a court-mandated cleanup last March. As exclusively reported by The Villager, an unloaded .22-caliber handgun was found in the apartment back then, and Jessica Berk was charged with weapon possession. She said the gun might have belonged to her late father. The case ultimately was dropped after the district attorney could not prove it was her gun.

In fact, Jessica Berk told The Villager during a visit to the apartment this July that she even had an old-school “three-quarter inch” Bill Cosby sex tape — involving a prominent former female music industry figure who is no longer living — lying around the house somewhere, but had lost it amid all the previous mess.

“I’m still looking for it,” she said. “The National Enquirer wanted it.” 

Ruth Berk singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” with her daughter, Jessica Berk, chiming in.   PHOTO BY LINCOLN ANDERSON
Ruth Berk singing “Fly Me to the Moon,” with her daughter, Jessica Berk, chiming in. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Using a walker, her mother came into the living room. Jessica grew up in the place. Ruth has lived there since 1961.

“They want this apartment,” Ruth said of the landlord, BLDG Management.

They had lost the original lease, signed by Ruth’s late husband, Leo, but found it again last year. During The Villager’s visit, Jessica lost the lease again, but then found it again atop a bookshelf.

Ruth sat on the bench of an upright piano, on whose music rest was perched a collage of four photos of her in her glamorous heyday. Jessica perched next to her in a chair and her usually hyper Chihuahua, Angelina Jolie, dozed strangely calmly nearby on a couch.

“I was a singer,” Ruth said dramatically. “That was my purpose in life — a singer.”

Leo ran the Waverly Lounge, which was located in the Washington Square Hotel’s current restaurant space.

“I sang at the bar, sitting next to the piano player,” she said. “The place was usually crowded, and I loved it.”

Some glam shots of Ruth Berk as a singer in her youth. Photo by Lincoln Anderson
Some glam shots of Ruth Berk as a singer in her youth. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Ever since Leo, who was about 20 years her senior, died some decades ago, the owner has been trying to get them out, she said.

Landlord wants them out
“The landlord wants these apartments, we know this,” she said of their unit and at least one of the other penthouse abodes, “and they’ll go to any lengths to do it.”

They currently pay $783 a month, with the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption, or SCRIE, helping keep their rent low. The actual rent is $2,200, but the government pays the landlord the balance.

“This is a two-bedroom penthouse with a terrace in the Village,” Jessica chimed in. “This is like caviar. This is the crème de la crème.”

A call to BLDG Management was not returned by press time.

Leo Berk's original lease for the apartment.
Leo Berk’s lease for the apartment from the 1960s. Photo by Lincoln Anderson

Ruth told the story of how she became a singer, starting with her performance at an Avenue B vaudeville theater at age 2 in the 1920s. She later overcame her shyness of singing thanks to the head of the music department at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx. Her big breakout came in Detroit: She was on her way to perform when the news came that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor; she momentarily considered not going onstage, but decided to go ahead with it — and the rest was history.

At one point, a mouse darted under the piano. The Berks blamed it on unsealed holes left from the recent repairs.

Sitting in their Christopher St. aerie, Ruth gave a sample of her pipes, launching into “Fly Me to the Moon,” a Frank Sinatra hit. All the words came effortlessly to her as she belted them out in a brassy style. After a few verses, Jessica started to sing along with her.

Fly me to the moon
Let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like on
Jupiter and Mars
In other words, hold my hand

(Jessica took her mom’s hand and they leaned their heads together)

In other words, baby, kiss me…