BY YANNIC RACK | Bernie Goetz is fighting back against the landlord who is trying to evict him from his apartment of more than 30 years — for allegedly harboring pet squirrels.
Goetz, 67, the notorious subway vigilante who shot four men on a train in 1984, has been facing the boot for keeping the animals in his W. 14th St. apartment, but has denied the charge in housing court despite being known to care for the critters.
He declined to talk about the case — which is not the first time he has come under fire for keeping rodents at his rent-controlled apartment. But his attorney, Spencer Sheehan, told The Villager that he was mounting a new defense.
“He’s on the road to becoming a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, Class I, under New York State law. So he’s going legit,” Sheehan said last week. “The building will just have to live with it.”
According to Sheehan, Goetz took the test for the license in August and just recently received confirmation that he passed. The rest, Sheehan said, should just be a matter of paperwork.
“Considering there are not many people who take the test, it shouldn’t be too difficult to process his application,” he said. “We already have the letters of recommendation that are needed.”
According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which issues wildlife rehabilitator licenses, all that’s left to do now is an interview with a D.E.C. representative.
After that, Goetz will be allowed to provide care “for injured or debilitated wildlife for release back to the wild,” including mammals, reptiles and amphibians, small birds like pigeons and sparrows, and even game birds like turkeys and pheasants.
The license is valid for five years and allows its holder to capture, house, feed and provide emergency treatment to the animals.
Goetz’s squirrels have been a common sight dating back at least 10 years, when court papers say he was “observed washing a wild squirrel in the building’s laundry room,” according to the New York Daily News. He allegedly explained that “the squirrel had fleas.”
His landlord, Courtney House LLC, filed a holdover proceeding in May, citing lease violations based on his alleged possession of the squirrels and the accusation that Goetz’s apartment was a hoarder’s dump — an allegation that has been resolved, according to Sheehan.
“There was an issue of hoarding, the specific accumulation of material positions,” the attorney said, “but that issue has been resolved and the apartment is no longer in that condition.”
The defense still denies that any squirrels are, or have been, housed in the apartment off Union Square, where Goetz has lived for more than three decades.
“Even if it’s proven that he possesses a prohibited animal, such as an eastern gray squirrel,” Sheehan said, “the building has to prove that the mere existence and presence of a squirrel in the apartment is a nuisance under the laws of the state of New York. “Meaning they would have to show that, by his possession of the squirrel, it has caused an unreasonable interference with the property interests and the use and enjoyment of other tenants.”
Sheehan said the landlord has brought numerous actions like this in the past, asking that Goetz get rid of his alleged squirrels and agree not to house any prohibited animals, but that this was the first time the tenant had actual leverage.
Sheehan said, “I told them, ‘You can drop your case now or you can go forward, in which case he’ll become a rehabilitator, and then he can get a raccoon, a possum, a skunk, a ferret and everything else.’ ”
According to the attorney, the building exterminator who first claimed to have seen a squirrel in the apartment back in March — which prompted the court case — is expected to testify at the trial, scheduled for next week.
In a letter sent to Sheehan in July, Robert Holland, a partner at the law firm that represents the landlord, also wrote that he had received a complaint from one of the tenants at Goetz’s building.
The tenant allegedly claimed to have seen a large squirrel climbing up and down the window ledge inside Goetz’s apartment.
The letter goes on to say that the tenant and her friend will be called to testify once the proceeding goes to trial.
“Mr. Goetz’ history of harboring squirrels and/or other rodents is a chronic and ongoing nuisance,” Holland wrote in the letter, “and this most recent incident is, my client contends, additional proof that your client is unwilling or unable to comply with his obligations under his lease for the apartment and applicable provisions of law.”
Holland could not be reached for a comment.
Goetz is scheduled to appear back in court on Fri., Sept. 25, at which point it will become clear whether the acquisition of the license has effectively “cured” the alleged violation. Either way, Sheehan isn’t worried.
“I think that we’ll either be successful in getting their case dismissed, or we’ll come to a stipulation that is, to use a poor pun, toothless, without incisors,” he said. “They should just go home now and drop their case, but they’re not going to.”