This piece was reported and published in a partnership between Documented and THE CITY.
Members of the Bloods gang took over a Brooklyn-based fire clean-up company, using violence and extortion to profit off damaged buildings and inferno victims, federal prosecutors allege.
Their targets included a Queens apartment building where a 2021 blaze displaced nearly 500 people in Jackson Heights. Dozens of former tenants at that address have asserted their belongings were burglarized, as reported by THE CITY in March.
In an indictment late last month, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York alleged gang members first gained control of First Response Cleaning Corp. in 2019, and then used the company — which secures and cleans up buildings after blazes — to extort competitors and muscle the industry with violence and threats.
“We are smoking out corruption and violence in the fire mitigation industry with today’s charges,” U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement when the indictment was made public on June 29.
The fire company has worked on buildings across New York City.
Tenants there told THE CITY that residents had been barred from entering the building but later found jewelry, money and other valuables missing from their apartments when they were allowed a virtual tour via video conference.
The owners of the Jackson Heights building, Kedex Properties, 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 the feds in their indictment called the alleged racket a “criminal enterprise,” none of the charges include burglary or theft of items from buildings.
“There were all kinds of incidents where First Response was snatching people’s belongings from them and throwing it back inside or giving it to the landlord,” a tenant organizer who lived in the Jackson Heights building said. “It was just bizarre. People had to hide their own documents in their kids’ clothing to get away with it.”
First Response presented themselves as both a security company and a fire restoration company, and prevented tenants from entering their homes, he said, preferring to go unnamed due to fear of retaliation for speaking out against the company.
“It was just a bad vibe,” he said. “It seemed like something was going on — from the behavior with some of the tenants from just the first night. They were very harsh and menacing with us.”
He noted that when tenants held a news conference in front of the building, First Response workers — dressed in all red and black — were hostile toward them.
“‘Don’t get close to the f-cking building! Step away!’” he recalled them shouting.
The city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development has worked to help the displaced tenants find housing, as many are still living in hotels.
Meanwhile, a judge has ordered the building owners to make necessary repairs by January to allow people to move back, according to a complaint filed in Queens Housing Court.
Spokespeople for HPD and Mayor Eric Adams did not respond to requests for comment.
Boss Busted in Sixth Borough
Ten suspects were arrested through the multi-agency investigation, which included the NYPD, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, according to officials.
According to the federal indictment, eight alleged gang members first began taking control of 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 company, they moved on to other emergency-mitigation services companies and public adjusters “to exert control over the entire fire mitigation industry,” the criminal complaint reads.
Octavio Peralta, a 42-year-old public adjuster, was allegedly involved in the group’s efforts to defraud and take control of the industry by allegedly threatening to kill or shoot other employees, according to the indictment.
Once they took control of the industry, they allegedly extorted money from other companies, submitted false insurance claims for damaged properties and threatened violence against witnesses who were part of the federal investigation, according to the complaint.
A lawyer for Peralta, John Carman, denied his client had any involvement in crimes.
“Mr. Peralta is a licensed public adjuster who had no affiliation with any gang and operates his business in a lawful manner,” he told THE CITY in a statement. “We expect that the evidence will support his claim that he is not guilty of the charges in the indictment.”
Another public adjuster who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation indicated the problem is bigger than just one company.
“It’s not just First Response, I’m really surprised that they only got them,” they said. “Of course, they were the leaders, they change the way I do business, but therey are still all these other [fire] chasers out there.”