NEW YORK (AP) — Two masked men grabbed New York City real estate developer Menachem Stark outside his office one snowy night and thrust him into a waiting van. His burned body turned up a day later in a smoldering trash bin, miles away in suburban Long Island.
Stark, a member of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect, has been described as an honest family man eager to help his neighbors and friends, a man who had no enemies. But he's also been called a slumlord. Some of his buildings were in disrepair, and he owed millions to creditors and had declared bankruptcy in 2009.
Investigators have no solid leads in the mysterious death this month, which shocked the close-knit Satmar Hasidic community in north Brooklyn.
"Everybody here is shattered," said Rabbi David Niederman, who has known the family for decades. "We're dealing with a very difficult, almost unbearable situation, and the most tortured people of all are his family."
Stark, 39, is seen on surveillance footage being strong-armed into a Dodge minivan the night of Jan. 2. One of his brothers-in-law contacted the shomrim, the Hasidic community's volunteer neighborhood patrol, when he didn't return home. When the patrol members found his car and his office locked, they checked surveillance camera footage and then called police. The body was discovered the next day in a trash bin at a gas station in Great Neck, about 20 miles east of his office.
Stark, nicknamed Max, was a husband and father of seven, the youngest barely 2 years old, the oldest about 16. He lived in a stately brick building in Williamsburg, a neighborhood where hipsters in skinny jeans live alongside ultra-Orthodox men with ear locks and fur hats and women in modest dresses. Brooklyn is home to the largest group of ultra-Orthodox Jews outside Israel — more than 250,000. Stark came from a large family, and his funeral this week was flooded with mourners.
"He really was a loving husband and father," said Abraham Buxbaum, married to Stark's older sister. "I don't ever remember getting a 'no' from him. He helped people get into the real estate market. He was there for every individual, and the community."
Stark and his business partners owned and renovated buildings throughout Brooklyn as the borough became increasingly trendy. Court records show they often borrowed money from banks to finance new ventures.
But they filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and landed in court several times. He and his primary business partner, Israel Perlmutter, were sued in 2011 after defaulting on a $29 million loan, according to federal court records. In 2012, he was ordered to pay more than $4 million for defaulting on a $2.5 million loan for a separate renovation, court records show.
A bankruptcy judge on Thursday ordered the company to account for $2 million owed to creditors involved in one of his buildings in 2009. They had filed paperwork saying they were concerned about the money being repaid following Stark's death and his apparent "financial dire straits."
Stark had about 1,000 tenants, maybe more, his family said, and several described him as a terrific landlord. Jordan Brown, 30, said he'd lived in a building owned by Stark for about three years and he thought very highly of him.
"I knew Max well, and he was actually the only landlord I ever knew who wasn't a slumlord," he said.
Another tenant, Melissa Manning, rented commercial space from him and said he was friendly, flexible and responsive.
"We had no conflicts, no disagreements, nothing. He was great," she said.
But many of his buildings had dozens of serious violations, including working without proper permits. And he was also the target of dozens of complaints of mismanagement, prompting a Sunday headline on the front page of the New York Post that read: "Who didn't want him dead?"
Heather Letzkus runs a blog about real estate in north Brooklyn, something she described as a "wailing wall" for residents with bad landlord tales, and Stark and his buildings have played prominently. There are particular complaints about a hotel of single rooms once raided by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and an industrial building billed as luxury lofts. Stark was fined $25,000 in 2009 for unsafe working conditions at the loft site, according to records. A stop-work order is in place there because of unpaid fines.
"There's a pattern," Letzkus said. "One of the things that really jumped out at me is that you had similar complaints and citations," she said.
The Satmar community was horrified by the Post headline, and many friends point out that a landlord with 1,000 tenants is bound to have some critics. Buxbaum, the brother-in-law, said it would have been impossible for Stark to maintain such split personalities.
"You can't hide forever. If you're a bad person, it comes out," he said. "No one ever said anything bad; I only heard people say how good he was."
But, then, who wanted him dead? Rumors have swirled on the possibilities, from contract killers to angry acquaintances.
Police have released additional video of a masked suspect, and they're looking for the van. Stark's official cause of death has not been released. His business partners are cooperating with police, and investigators are probing his financial dealings. Police are making headway.
"The investigation is advancing," Commissioner William Bratton said this week. "We are getting a lot of evidence and additional video and getting a lot if information regarding the dealings of the victim and his partners.
"It's a complex investigation."