The city of New York is certainly not a stranger to crime. Whether it is burglary, pickpocketing, vehicle theft or other like offenses, New York City experienced 371,880 incidents of property crime in 2012. Despite those impressive numbers, there was one crime that year that was truly unprecedented: the theft of one of the world’s tallest and most famous skyscrapers.
In November 2012, one of the recording clerks at New York’s City Hall was handed a recently-executed deed. On its face, there was nothing particularly remarkable about it that would distinguish the document from the thousands that pass through that office on a regular basis. The deed described a certain parcel of real estate within the city and conveyed ownership to Nelots Properties, LLC.
The clerk scanned the deed, confirming that it had the legal description, name, and address of the new owners and that it was properly signed and notarized. When everything appeared to be in order, the clerk stamped “FILED” on the document and entered the transaction in the records. As far as the city of New York was concerned, it was just one more real estate transfer.
In retrospect, there were a few troubling aspects of the deed. For one thing, the legal description described the parcel of land on which sits one of the most iconic buildings in the world: the 102-story Empire State Building. Another suspicious aspect was the name of one of the witnesses. Fay Wray was the actress who starred in the 1933 movie King Kong and who, in that film, was carried by the giant ape to the top of the Empire State Building. Coincidentally and suspiciously, Fay Wray’s signature was at the bottom of the deed. Another clue that something was afoot was the name of the notary public who authenticated Fay Wray’s signature: Willie Sutton. This alleged notary public shared the name of one of the most notorious bank robbers of the 20th century. As if all of this were not enough to raise some eyebrows, a careful look at the name of the new owner of the building would reveal that it was the word “stolen” spelled backward.
Despite all of these troubling details, less than 90 minutes after the deed was submitted for recording, the transaction was complete. The Empire State Building, with an estimated value in excess of $2 billion, had been stolen.
Unlike the sizable percentage of property crimes, this one did not go unsolved for long. The perpetrators of one of the biggest heists in American history came forward, confessing their guilt and returning the stolen goods. The building thieves were the editors of the New York Daily News. The newspaper explained that it performed the stunt in an effort to draw attention to enormous risks of fraud and other financial crimes.
Taking advantage of the fact that the recording clerks are not required to verify the most important details of a deed, the newspaper illustrated the way in which many crooks not only obtain ownership of property but then use the recorded deed to defraud banks through mortgages secured by that property.
Fortunately, the newspaper did not attempt to get a mortgage on the Empire State Building. Instead, less than 24 hours after stealing the building, the newspaper returned it to its rightful owners.