NEW YORK (AP) — For five years, a New York City man managed to live rent-free in a landmark Manhattan hotel by taking advantage of an obscure local housing law.

But prosecutors said this week that Mickey Barreto went too far when he filed documents claiming ownership of the entire New Yorker Hotel building and tried to collect rent from another tenant.

On Wednesday, he was arrested and charged with filing false property records. But Barreto, 48, says he was surprised when police showed up at his boyfriend’s apartment with guns and bulletproof shields. In his opinion, it should be a civil case, not a criminal one.

“I told him, ‘Oh, I thought you were doing something for Valentine’s Day to spice up the relationship until I saw the officers,’” Barreto recalled telling her boyfriend.

Barreto’s indictment for fraud and criminal contempt is just the latest chapter in the years-long legal saga that began when he and his boyfriend paid about $200 to rent one of the more than 1,000 rooms in the imposing Art Deco structure built in 1930. .

Barreto says she had just moved to New York from Los Angeles when her boyfriend told her about a loophole that allows occupants of single rooms in buildings built before 1969 to demand a six-month lease. Barreto stated that because he had paid for a night at the hotel, he counted as a tenant.

He asked for a lease and the hotel quickly kicked him out.

“So I went to court the next day. The judge denied it. I appealed to the (state) Supreme Court and won the appeal,” Barreto said, adding that at a crucial point in the case, the building owners’ attorneys did not show up, allowing him to win by default.

The judge ordered the hotel to give a key to Baretto. He said he lived there until July 2023 rent-free because the building’s owners never wanted to negotiate a lease with him, but they couldn’t kick him out.

Manhattan prosecutors acknowledge that the housing court gave Barreto “possession” of his room. But they say he didn’t stop there: In 2019, he uploaded a fake deed to a city website, purporting to transfer ownership of the entire building to the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, which purchased the property in 1976. The church was founded in South Korea by a self-proclaimed messiah, the late Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

Barreto then attempted to accuse several entities as owners of the building, “including demanding rent from one of the hotel’s tenants, registering the hotel in his name with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection for water and sewer payments , and demand that the hotel’s bank transfer its accounts,” the prosecutor’s office said in the statement.

“As alleged, Mickey Barreto repeatedly and fraudulently claimed ownership of one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, the New Yorker Hotel,” said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

Located one block from Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, the New Yorker has never been among the city’s most glamorous hotels, but it has long been among the largest. Its huge red sign reading “New Yorker” makes it a much-photographed landmark. Inventor Nikola Tesla lived in the hotel for a decade. NBC broadcast from the hotel’s Terrace Room. Boxers, including Muhammad Ali, stayed there when they fought at the Garden. It closed as a hotel in 1972 and was used for years for religious purposes before part of the building reopened as a hotel in 1994.

The Unification Church sued Barreto in 2019 over the deed claim, including his representations on LinkedIn as the building’s owner. The case is ongoing, but a judge ruled that Barreto cannot present himself as the owner in the meantime.

A spokesman for the Unification Church declined to comment on his arrest, citing the ongoing civil case.

In that case, Baretto argued that the judge who gave him “possession” of his room indirectly gave him the entire building because it had never been subdivided.

“I never intended to commit any fraud. “I don’t think I committed any fraud,” Barreto said. “And I never made a cent from it.”

Barreto said his legal dispute is activism aimed at denying the Unification Church profits. The church, known for holding mass weddings, has been sued for its recruiting methods and criticized by some for its friendly relationship with North Korea, where Moon was born.

He said he never hired a lawyer for civil cases and always represented himself. On Wednesday he got a criminal defense attorney.

By Sam