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New York Times article of 7/2/2014 about Robert Merritt

Douglas Caddy

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Takeover of Kenmore Hotel: Informer Recalls His Complicity

JULY 2, 2014

The New York Times


[Photo: Earl Robert Merritt seen last week. He was an informer known as Tony when the government seized the Kenmore Hotel in 1994. Credit Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times]


It was as if the Fifth Infantry Division had come marching down East 23rd Street.

Late in the morning of June 8, 1994, police officers, federal marshals and F.B.I. agents invaded one of New York City’s grand temples of dysfunction: the 22-story, 641-room ulcer known as the Kenmore Hotel.

They ran into the lobby, which stank of mildew and urine. They ran up the stairs, as crack vials crackled beneath their feet.

They battered down doors and rousted residents in that vast rabbit warren. They arrested 18 tenants on charges of drug dealing; the tenants sat, dazed, in handcuffs on the sidewalk.

The takeover of the Kenmore was at the time the largest federal forfeiture to fight drug dealing in American history.

“The Kenmore Hotel has been permeated by violence and become a virtual supermarket of crack cocaine,” Mary Jo White, then the United States attorney in Manhattan, told reporters. Gov. Mario M. Cuomo visited the scene and Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani held an all-points press conference.

Why not? It was liberation.

The hotel, a warren of 641 rooms on East 23rd Street in Manhattan, was notorious for drug dealing. Credit John Sotomayor/The New York Times

There is another, more unsettling version. Two police informers now claim that the conquest of the Kenmore was a dirty victory, another chapter in an era in which the police and prosecutors fought a blood tide of homicides, crack and heroin, and too often took disturbing liberties.

We love to congratulate ourselves on New York’s global reputation as a safe, even pasteurized metropolis. The informer’s tale suggests that the trail the city traveled had more disquieting byways than we realized.

A confidential informer, a man whose career in snitching for the police and federal agencies extends back to the Watergate era, said the assault on the Kenmore was constructed of illegalities. This informer, Earl Robert Merritt, described how he had worked with narcotics officers — before and after the takeover — to frame more than 150 Kenmore residents as dealers.

“I planted drugs, I planted guns, I made false reports,” Mr. Merritt said. “I was given a list — little stars by the list of tenants who I was supposed to set up.”

“I helped send hundreds of people out in handcuffs,” he added, “and I’d say 80 percent were innocent.”

Mr. Merritt, 70, who hobbles about with wrecked hips and two black canes, was an informer for nearly 40 years, according to federal and police records. The Manhattan district attorney confirmed that he had worked at the Kenmore; two officers said he was an excellent informer.

He named dozens of people he said he had set up. Some served prison terms, records show. After the takeover of the Kenmore, he said, he undermined its tenants’ association, again at the direction of federal agents.

Mr. Merritt took his accusations to the Manhattan district attorney last year. He said an assistant prosecutor in the mid-1990s had directed him to swear falsely that he had witnessed certain crimes.

A public-corruption prosecutor interviewed Mr. Merritt and pulled court files.

“Senior prosecutors have done extensive interviews with this informant, and followed several potential leads, but to date have not found provable allegations,” a law enforcement official familiar with Mr. Merritt’s allegations said. “But the file is open, and if more information comes to light it will certainly be taken seriously.”

The district attorney’s investigation appears to have been confined to pulling court files. In eight months of interviewing dozens of people connected with the Kenmore, including former tenants, those arrested and police officers, I did not find one who had been questioned anew.

Mr. Merritt’s charges can be difficult to verify. Many former Kenmore tenants — impoverished, haunted by addictions and bouncing along the river bottom of life — have disappeared from the public record. By his own account, those whom Mr. Merritt fingered as drug dealers and illegally set up ran the gamut, from actual dealers to low-level drug users with mental health issues to tenant leaders who angered him or federal and city agents but were not dealing drugs at all.

Five people — two former tenants, a caseworker, a former lawyer and another police informer — confirmed Mr. Merritt’s core accusations. Three of the five spoke on the record. “He’d tell us a tenant was going to be arrested and the next day, out they went, out in handcuffs,” the former caseworker said. “They wanted to clean the place out, and they gave him lists, and he’d be swearing to God people were drug dealers.”

I reached Dominick Crispino, the former lawyer and tenant — who has since been disbarred and done time for larceny. “We kept saying Merritt was a tool of the government and told the courts he was setting people up,” he said. “If he’s coming clean, you can count on every word. He was one of the smartest people I ever tangled with.”

A quick-witted fellow with owlish eyes, Mr. Merritt lived in an ethical netherworld. He was a crack addict, and in the 1980s had been convicted of felony fraud and became a fugitive. (A judge later tossed out the conviction.)

In long interviews at his apartment off Fordham Road in the Bronx, however, Mr. Merritt rarely contradicted himself. Court records confirmed his mastery of details. He insisted that I portray him as deeply flawed.

“You cannot paint me with a halo on my head,” he said. “I’m a nasty son of a bitch.”

Three law enforcement agents described Mr. Merritt as a cunning informer.

If there was a hero at the Kenmore Hotel, it was Scott Kimmins, a tall patrolman known to lawbreakers as Stretch. Before the federal takeover, he walked the hotel stairs alone. He rousted and arrested dealers and comforted marooned innocents.

He came to know Mr. Merritt, who accused him of no illegalities.

“He was on the money, for the most part,” noted Mr. Kimmins, now operations director for the Flatiron 23rd Street Business Improvement District. “He’d mention a room, and sure enough, you’d see drug activity.”

Mr. Kimmins emphasized that he did not know the narcotics officers or their relationship with Mr. Merritt. He saw no need for illegal subterfuges. “That’s ridiculous,” he said. “You could be deaf and dumb and make a bust there.”

He said Mr. Merritt loved to tell tall tales of his supposed connections to intelligence agencies and Watergate.

But as it happened, those tales were true.

Federal records confirm that Mr. Merritt worked with the Washington police and the F.B.I. to infiltrate left-wing groups in Washington in the early 1970s; that his police handler apprehended the Watergate burglars; and that he was interviewed by investigators for the Watergate special prosecutor, Archibald Cox.

Told of this, Mr. Kimmins chuckled ruefully. Years ago, he noted, he assumed the charges against the police officers accused of abusing Abner Louima were absurd. Those accusations, too, proved true. “I don’t believe Tony,” he said. “But I’ve been surprised before.”

Mr. Merritt offers his own caution: “A confidential informant is a very powerful character. We don’t need a badge or gun. And we ruin lives.”

THE KENMORE HOTEL had a seedy literary pedigree. It was a Gramercy Park refuge for Dashiell Hammett; Nathanael West worked as a night manager.

Its decline was baroque.

In 1985, Tran Dinh Truong, a shipping magnate who prospered mysteriously during the Vietnam War, arrived in the United States with suitcases full of gold bars. He bought the Kenmore as a tax shelter, and ran it with no regard for safety.

He filled the place with ex-convicts, prostitutes and addicts. He hired security guards who waved in anyone for a few dollars. Mr. Merritt, a moth to that flame, got a job.

“My main job was to hand out cash envelopes to the building and elevator inspectors,” Mr. Merritt said. “The only thing they inspected was their envelopes.”

Conditions inside grew hideous. An 86-year-old was murdered in the communal bathroom. A woman was strangled in her room.

For residents of Gramercy Park, an embattled middle-class pocket, the hotel visited miseries from burglaries to drug dealing.

By the early 1990s, federal officials had set their eyes on Mr. Truong and his wayward hotel. Narcotics officers and federal agents made more than 100 arrests and, records show, they relied on an informer: Mr. Merritt.

He is gifted at ingratiating himself. He could laugh with a dealer, buy vials of crack and smoke it. Then he would point out that man for the police. “If I didn’t like you, or the police wanted you gone, you were gone,” he said.

It was as if he was inhaling chutzpah. “It was too outrageous for even dealers to think he’d come right back the next day,” the former caseworker said.

Robert Chaney also worked there as a confidential informer. As pressure increased, narcotics officers plotted. “They would get really upset when they busted into a room and found nothing there,” he said. “They gave him drugs and maybe a gun and he’d plant it.”

Asked about this, Mr. Merritt nodded. “They would tell me which rooms to target, and I would slip crack behind a mattress or under the sink.”

Detectives taught him to set small fires, he said. Firefighters would batter down doors; the police would find crack and guns.

He got $50 per arrest, and $100 every time he testified to a judge.

Prosecutors guaranteed Mr. Merritt that he would not have to testify in public. They had suspects over a barrel: Serve six months in jail and leave the hotel — or we’ll imprison you for 20 years.

SEEN from the remove of a safer city, those dark years now reveal signs of a dirty war. Too often, swaggering detectives and prosecutors eager for any victory broke rules and framed people. And confidential informers were given enormous latitude to set up people.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, was a beat officer before he became a prosecutor. The occupational hazard in dealing with informers, he said, was that “your ears are open to what you want to hear.”

It was perilously easy, Mr. O’Donnell said, for an officer working with an informer to think nothing of setting up a hapless character with minor convictions.

“It dovetails with the problem of false convictions,” he said. “The real danger is that we get your rap sheet, and we see a track record of minor drug abuse, and no one loses sleep over your conviction. The ends justify the means.”

Mr. Merritt described being driven to the Manhattan district attorney’s office on a rainy evening. A prosecutor was typing statements for him, which he was going to swear to before a judge.

“Read this carefully and don’t stray from the statement,” the prosecutor told him, he said. “You’re going to have to swear to this. Do you have a problem, Tony?”

He said he looked at the prosecutor and asked: “So you want me to commit perjury?”

“I don’t want to hear that,” the prosecutor replied, according to Mr. Merritt.

After the takeover, Mr. Merritt said, federal marshals and the police told him to disrupt the tenants’ association. He and Mr. Chaney tore down notices and interrupted meetings and shrieked. An officer, he said, told him to vandalize Mr. Crispino’s car.

“He was very skilled and very scary; he could get you arrested in about five minutes,” said Sal Martinez, a tenant leader. “I complained and a federal agent yelled at me: ‘Merritt is working for us. Don’t get in our way.’ ”

There is no doubt the Kenmore is a safer, better-run place. Social services are provided; security is insistent. Maybe we’ll never know if more than 100 New Yorkers got walked out in cuffs and convicted on the basis of planted evidence and false testimony.

Or perhaps the ends justified the means, and it’s a door better left closed.

Except that similar raids occurred at other single-room-occupancy hotels throughout the city. Mr. Merritt worked as a confidential informer at a couple of those, too. This story, you see, may not end on East 23rd Street.

“This is not just a Kenmore story,” Mr. Merritt said. “This was happening everywhere.”

Email: powellm@nytimes.com

Twitter: @powellnyt

A version of this article appears in print on July 3, 2014, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: Takeover of Hotel: Informer Recalls His Complicity.

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  • 2 weeks later...

THURSDAY - JULY 17, 2014:


Former confidential informant ROBERT MERRITT, and New York Times Reporter MICHAEL POWELL will be sharing information on the secret life of working for the government. Learn more about Michael's exclusive interview with Robert Merritt in his latest article: Takeover of Kenmore Hotel: Informer Recalls His Complicity.
** This is a Power Hour exclusive interview and the only place you will hear details from Robert Merritt and Michael Powell's interview. This will also be the last radio interview ever that Robert Merritt will be giving.

The show can be listened to over the Internet.


Edited by Douglas Caddy
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You can listen to Robert Merritt and the NY Times reporter, Michael Powell, being interviewed today on The Power Hour in hours 2 and 3 below.

Merritt claimed that only 18 percent of "Watergate Exposed" was his writing. He said that the rest were "lies" fabricated by me. Moderator Joyce Riley cut him off quickly about this.

He also declared that 100 of the 200 pieces of candy that he distributed to the anti-war protesters in the early 1970s at their parade in Washington resulted in many people dying from the poison placed in the candy and many of these protesters permanently losing their minds due to the chemicals placed in the candy. He said that he only recently had thought about the havoc by him that occurred on those involved.




Edited by Douglas Caddy
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