This article has been reported and published as part of a partnership between Documented and THE CITY.
Members of the Bloods gang have taken over a Brooklyn-based fire cleanup business, using violence and extortion to profit from damaged buildings and victims of hell, federal prosecutors allege.
Their targets included an apartment building in Queens where a fire in 2021 displaced nearly 500 people in Jackson Heights. Dozens of former tenants at the address claimed their property had been broken into, as THE CITY reported in March.
In an indictment late last month, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleged that gang members took control of First Response Cleaning Corp. in 2019, then used the company – which secures and cleans buildings after fires – to extort competitors. and muscle the industry through violence and threats.
“We smoke corruption and violence in the fire mitigation industry with today’s charges,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement at the indictment. released June 29.
The fire company worked on buildings across New York City.
Tenants told THE CITY residents were not allowed into the building but later found jewelry, cash and other valuables missing from their apartments when allowed to make a virtual visit by videoconference.
The owners of the Jackson Heights building, Kedex Properties, have hired First Response with a $24 million contract to clean up the building, the Queens Chronicle reported last year.
Kedex did not respond to calls for comment.
While federal authorities in their indictment called the alleged racketeering a “criminal enterprise,” none of the charges include burglary or theft of objects from buildings.
Andrew Sokolof Diaz, resident of the Jackson Heights building and president of the 89th Street Tenants Unidos Association, said First Response presented itself as both a security company and a fire restoration company, and prevented tenants from enter their home.
“It was just a bad vibe,” he said. “It looked like something was up – from the behavior of some of the tenants from the first night. They were very harsh and threatening with us.
He noted that when tenants held a press conference outside the building, First Response workers – dressed in red and black – were hostile to them.
“Stay away from the fucking building!” Go away! ” Sokolof Diaz remembered that they had shouted.
“There were all kinds of incidents where First Response was snatching people’s things from them and tossing them inside or giving them to the owner,” he said. “It was just weird. People had to hide their own documents in their kids’ clothes to get away with it.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has been working to help displaced tenants find housing, as many still live in hotels.
Meanwhile, a judge has ordered the owners of the building to make necessary repairs by January to allow people to return, according to a complaint filed with the Queens Housing Court.
HPD spokespeople and Mayor Eric Adams did not respond to requests for comment.
Boss arrested in the sixth arrondissement
Ten suspects were arrested as part of the multi-agency investigation, which included the NYPD, FBI and Department of Homeland Security, officials said.
According to the federal indictment, eight suspected gang members began taking over First Response in 2019, with member Jatiek Smith, 37 – who was arrested last month in Puerto Rico – as the leader. . A lawyer for Smith declined to comment.
Once they took control of the business, they moved on to other emergency mitigation service companies and public adjusters “to exercise control over the entire fire mitigation industry,” the criminal complaint reads.
Octavio Peralta, a 42-year-old public expert, was allegedly implicated in the group’s efforts to defraud and take over the industry by threatening to kill or shoot other employees, the indictment alleges.
Once they took control of the industry, they allegedly extorted money from other businesses, submitted bogus insurance claims for damaged properties and threatened violence against witnesses who were part of the federal investigation, according to the complaint.
A Peralta lawyer, John Carman, denied that his client was involved in any crimes.
“Mr. Peralta is a licensed public expert who was not affiliated with any gang and operated his business in a legal manner,” he told THE CITY in a statement. “We expect the evidence to support his assertion that he is not guilty of the charges in the indictment.”
Another public expert who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation said the issue is bigger than just one company.
“It’s not just First Response, I’m really surprised they haven’t received them,” they said. “Of course they were the leaders, they changed the way I do business, but there are still all these other [fire] hunters there.