Tony Brancatelli and I are sitting in a Tremont coffee joint, talking about the Skunk House, a zombie property on East 57th Street that we’d visited in February. Back then, the stench of the striped nocturnal omnivores complemented an interior that the Department of Building and Housing politely described as “not maintained in a sanitary manner.”
Today, the garbage has been picked up and the building is secured and scheduled for demolition.
That doesn’t reflect a change of heart on the part of Blaine Murphy, the predatory bulk purchaser who allegedly flipped properties like pancakes — 221 of them in Cleveland, 30 of which are in Slavic Village, where Brancatelli is the councilman.
Murphy couldn’t care less, Brancatelli says.
“He’s made no effort to take care of the basic issues, making sure the properties are clean, safe and secure,” the Ward 12 councilman asserts.
Instead, the Cuyahoga County Land Bank took possession of the house when the Board of Revision sold it for tax delinquency.
It’s not as if the 44-year-old, blue-eyed carpetbagger who operated under the aliases Bryce Peters III and Bryce Peters Financial Corp. hasn’t had the time or opportunity to secure and fix the properties. Murphy was arrested on Dec. 23 — in his $1.2 million home in Naples, Fla., just across from the manicured greens of the Naples Beach Golf Club. He had been secretly indicted by a Cuyahoga County grand jury, accused of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, tampering with records, possessing criminal tools and money laundering.
After his arrest, Murphy spent a couple of months behind bars in the Naples Jail Center and the Cuyahoga County Jail. He bonded out in March after surrendering his passport, his student pilot’s license and driver’s license. His travel is limited to the city of Cleveland, his attorney’s office, the grocery store, medical and dental appointments, and properties “that are or may be controlled” by him, according to court documents. Rental documents show that Murphy and a friend rented a second-floor apartment on West 10th Street in trendy Tremont. Murphy wears an electronic ankle monitor.
He faces 15 felony charges in Common Pleas Court, with a trial scheduled to begin Sept. 19. He also faces 31 first-degree misdemeanor charges in Cleveland Municipal Housing Court. There are so many housing charges that a bench trial is scheduled for Sept. 5, and there will be two jury trials, Sept. 28 and Oct. 18.
Since this is Murphy’s first trip to Cleveland, I figured he might want to visit his weapons of mass destruction, as Brancatelli describes the vacant and abandoned properties the Bryce Peters Financial Corp. owns in Slavic Village.
“Let’s go see him,” I say.
We walk over to his apartment. We knock on doors. We set dogs barking. No response.
There’s a snappy gray Mustang parked in a detached garage. Someone’s home.
“Paint peeling, missing downspouts,” Brancatelli says. “I should call a housing inspector.”
Murphy’s buddy, Joe Farina, materializes on the second-floor patio deck. I ask him if Murphy’s around. Farina says he’s with his lawyer, Larry Zukerman.
“Who owns the Mustang?” I ask.
“It’s a rental,” Farina says.
“I want to know when Murphy’s gonna take responsibility for these vacant, abandoned properties,” Brancatelli says.
“You’ll have to talk to him,” Farina says.
I drive over to Zukerman’s office on Prospect Avenue near East 39th Street. A receptionist buzzes me in.
“I’m here to see Blaine.” I give her my name.
She picks up the phone. “Blaine, Chris Evans is here to see you.” She listens, then hangs up and punches another number. “Blaine asked me to call you. There’s a Chris Evans here. ”
She nods, hangs up. “Blaine is on the phone and Larry is on a conference call. If you leave your card and a convenient time to call, they’ll get back to you.”
“Heck, I’ve got all day,” I say. “I’ll wait.”
And there is Zukerman jogging down the stairs. “Let’s go outside,” he says.
“Naw, I’m afraid you wouldn’t let me back in.”
“You’re definitely not coming back in,” Zukerman says, ushering me out the glass door. He yanks it shut with both hands. “Have a nice day.” He waves.
Here’s what I wanted to talk about: Zukerman petitioned the courts for permission to take his client to 30751 Aimsworth Drive, Pepper Pike, on July 4 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. There is no such address. There’s a 30751 Ainsworth Drive. Alan Lipson lives there. He said he doesn’t know Zukerman or Murphy, and he didn’t have anybody over on the Fourth.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Robert C. McClelland approved Zukerman’s request. “Isn’t that interesting?” he says when I tell him about the bad address. “I took him at his word.”
If Zukerman returns my phone call, I’ll ask him where they really went, and why it wasn’t to clean up one of the dumps Bryce Peters Financial Corp. owns in Slavic Village.