‘Contrarian’ investor leaves a trail of bitterness
Morris Stern lived in his parents’ Brookline home until the day he died in 2012, a lonely bachelor who quietly built a lucrative real estate portfolio — and a reputation as a first-class cheapskate.
He wore temporary dentures for five years because he didn’t want to pay for permanent ones, friends said. When his diabetes left him barely able to see, he wouldn’t spend $10 for a pair of reading glasses. He returned unwanted groceries, like bread or rotisserie chickens, to Stop & Shop and once brought back a package of his dead father’s unopened underwear to Marshall’s.
So, when Stern’s friends and family heard that a stranger was claiming that Morris gave him two town houses in a prime Brookline location for $100, they were incredulous.
“Impossible,” said Leo Arnfeld, who had known Morris for 50 years. “He wouldn’t treat me to lunch.”
“Never,” said Ronel Raicsics, another longtime friend. “If you put a gun to his head and said turn the buildings over, he’d say pull the trigger.”
But they had never dealt with anyone quite like Brian R. Burke Sr., the self-styled “contrarian” real estate investor, builder, and broker who showed up at Stern’s three-family town houses in late 2012 and began collecting rent like he owned them. Burke claimed that Morris Stern had been his best friend and that Stern one day virtually gave him properties now valued at around $4.5 million. Burke even had a deed, supposedly signed by Stern two years before his death.
Burke, who grew up in the South Boston housing project where James “Whitey” Bulger once ruled the roost, admits his connection to Morris Stern, the miserly son of Holocaust survivors, was unlikely. But he insists their friendship and Stern’s extraordinary gift to him were heartfelt.
“We were diametrically opposed. I’m Catholic. He’s Jewish. I have 12 kids. He has no kids. We were so opposite in so many ways,” said Burke, 60, claiming that, somehow, their unlikely friendship brought out Stern’s generous side. “When I introduced him to my family, it was like the guy grew a heart.”
Trouble is, Morris Stern’s own mother said she never heard of the guy. And when Rita Stern heard about Burke’s claim to her late son’s houses, she gave her lawyer clear instructions: “Get those buildings back!”
Burke, it turns out, has been insinuating himself into people’s lives for decades, developing unlikely personal relationships that often lead to profitable deals for him and bitter accusations from others.
Court records show that Burke has been sued more than 30 times, including at least 10 lawsuits alleging that he deceived or ripped off people, mostly involving real estate. Burke has had mixed success in court, winning some cases, losing others, and settling most.
The details of Burke’s real estate controversies vary, but several of his alleged victims were either desperate, down on their luck, or disadvantaged in some way. The eccentric Stern’s mother was ailing and died the year after her son’s death, leaving the lawsuit in the hands of cousins who didn’t live in the United States.
Others who have sued Burke over real estate disputes include a frail, 88-year-old priest who was way behind on his taxes, and a Japanese businesswoman who claimed Burke tricked her into selling him property in Belmont.
“The most egregious cases are ones in which the victims are vulnerable or gone,” said David Kelston, a lawyer for the Stern estate who argues that the deed Burke presented for the houses in Brookline was a fabrication. “These are people who are in no position to defend themselves.”
Soon, Burke will appear in court to face allegations from a formerly homeless man, John Henry Wenk, who says Burke swindled him out of an 1896 Victorian in Brighton in the late 1990s.
Wenk, who has a master’s degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, freely admits he was having emotional problems and couldn’t care for the house, which was badly damaged in a fire. But he said Burke bought the place, then never paid him beyond a $10,000 downpayment. The property is now valued by the city at $1.34 million.
“I was really out of it at the time,” said Wenk, who remained homeless for years after the sale until moving into senior housing. “He knows how to work the system. He gets away with an awful lot.”
Below: In a photo posted to Twitter in 2014, Wenk sat in an office-style chair on a Green Line subway.
Burke, who lives in Newton, denies he has done anything wrong, saying a lot of the complaints are based on jealousy. He buys distressed properties, he says, bailing out homeowners who can no longer afford to care for them. He then fixes them up and sells them for a profit. It’s only natural that they might suffer sellers’ remorse, he says.
“If you find a gem and you polish it — you bought it in the raw,” said Burke. “Once you polish that, you can bet your life one of the relatives is going to come back and say sour grapes.”
He dismissed as “absolutely ridiculous” lawyers’ suggestion that he preys on vulnerable people.
Burke said he works with smart, well-educated, and “very capable people. They just have quirks. They leave properties in disrepair because they are either pack rats or have a lazy streak and don’t deal with maintenance.”
Lawyers who’ve squared off against Burke claim that he is opportunistic and deceptive, but they have to admit his warm, seemingly guileless manner may help get him out of trouble. Although he has been charged with a few offenses over the years, he has never been convicted of a crime and none of the charges had anything to do with real estate.
“Burke can be a very sweet guy,” said Donald Hubbard, the lawyer for Valentine Chepeleff, an elderly Russian Orthodox priest who sued Burke, claiming he was duped into selling a house to him in 2010 for a fraction of its value. “He’s one of the best operators I’ve ever seen. A really good operator is so good that after they screw you, you can’t sleep at night for three years. But you still like him.”
Burke, rumpled and unassuming, certainly does not seem like a suspicious character. He runs his business out of a Belmont storefront in the town where he’s praised for having redeveloped an old fire station that houses a popular restaurant.
He says he’s an active volunteer who gives back to the community, serving on Belmont’s bike trail advisory committee and its economic development advisory group.
“I’ve spent most of my life preserving property, designing walkways, pathways, and parks, and restoring old fountains,” Burke said. “The money was secondary.”
Burke insists that all of his dealings with Stern were about friendship from the time they met more than a decade ago. He did favors for Stern and the men grew very close, he said, having breakfast together regularly at a Jewish deli in the Waban section of Newton (a friend of Stern said he saw the two men together at the deli). Burke said he wanted nothing from Stern, unlike other friends who used him.
“He had friends who never ever came to his aid. They were hanger-oners who wanted something from him. It’s the saddest story you ever heard in your life,” Burke said.
But Stern’s old friends aren’t buying it, saying he would have been an easy person to exploit, describing him as socially awkward and immature. Though Stern was cheap, they said, when he lost money or other valuables, he did nothing to get them back.
In fact, Morris Stern had been targeted before, by unscrupulous jewelers who flattered him and then stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in jewelry, they said. When his friends warned that he was being conned, he would brush them off with an “eh” and dismiss their offers to help seek criminal charges.
Growing up in Brookline, Stern was not a particularly good student, friends say, but he proved to be almost a real estate savant. He seemed to know what every building was worth, and loved to dazzle his friends with stories about the many offers he received — and rejected — for his properties.
Stern had been offered nearly $2 million for one of the buildings Burke claimed to have gotten for $100 — at 1517 Beacon St. — according to court documents and Stern’s friends. But he would never sell.
Jake Kredi, a longtime friend of Stern, said that Stern simply enjoyed being wooed over his real estate.
“It was a game to him,” Kredi said. “He called it his jollies.”
When Stern died from complications of heart disease and diabetes on Aug. 7, 2012, at the age of 64, he owned seven properties valued at a combined $6.65 million.
His mother was overcome with grief at losing her only child. At the cemetery, Rita Stern wailed “my Moishe, my Moishe” so loudly that some feared she would hurl herself into her son’s grave.
“She was devastated,” said Norman Katz, a family friend, who was asked by his mother to handle Morris’s estate.
A few months after Stern’s death, Katz went to pay the real estate taxes on 1517 and 1736 Beacon St., but found there was nothing owed.
“I thought, ‘Why am I not getting this?’ ” Katz said. “I looked online, and the owner was listed as Brian Burke, Highland Street, Newton, Mass. I said, ‘What the hell? I never heard of him.’ ”
The next day, Katz said, he went to see Rita Stern, who was sick and living in a nursing home. “I said, ‘It appears that Morris sold the properties to someone.’ She said, ‘What?’ I explained to her what I saw from the tax bills. She couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘It is a mistake. Who’s Brian Burke?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”
A few months later, Burke began collecting rents, introducing himself to Stern’s tenants by way of a crude handwritten note taped to the railing at 1736 Beacon St., according to a lawyer for the tenants.
He moved one of his daughters into an apartment at 1517 Beacon — just blocks away from where his sons were already living in the house that once belonged to John Henry Wenk, the homeless MIT graduate.
When Stern’s family filed a lawsuit against Burke that accused him of allegedly stealing their houses, Burke didn’t miss a beat, insisting that he was close not only to Stern, but also to his late mother, even though she had insisted she did not know him.
After Rita Stern died, Burke claimed that she had made him homemade gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish dish, and wanted him to have her son’s buildings.
“I loved her,” said Burke, who claimed in an affidavit that “Rita jokingly referred to me as Morris’s big brother.” Burke was actually eight years younger than Stern.
Stern family members seriously doubt that Burke was close to Rita Stern, but Mark Siskowitz, an acquaintance of both Burke and Stern, said he saw Burke at the Stern house.
In Burke’s telling, Morris Stern decided to give him the buildings in 2010 and he drove Stern to South Boston to visit Burke’s longtime friend, a now-retired Boston city employee and occasional notary public, Frank “Richie” Statsky, to make it official. Burke said Statsky notarized the $100 deed on June 18, 2010, on the hood of Burke’s pickup truck.
Burke said he then put the deed under the sun visor and left it there, only rediscovering it after Stern had died more than two years later.
The attorneys hired by Stern’s heirs — cousins from Israel and Canada — challenged the authenticity of the $100 deed, on which Statsky’s own name is misspelled on the official notary stamp. When the lawyers asked for the original deed, Burke gave them what turned out to be an inkjet copy.
The lawyers questioned whether Stern signed anything at all, or whether he had been tricked into signing something else. Stern’s friends say he would not have gone anywhere in Burke’s truck — that, despite his poor vision, he insisted on driving his expensive but run-down Lexus.
“Everything we learned about Morris Stern suggests he would never have sold these buildings for their market value, let alone give them away to Brian Burke,” Kelston said. “Nothing about Burke’s story made sense.”
Today, Statsky, who grew up with Burke and was the only official witness to the $100 deed, said he doesn’t remember notarizing the deed or anything else about that day.
“I’m 71. I can’t remember what I did yesterday,” Statsky said. “That was a few years ago. I can’t remember six days ago.”
But, just as a Suffolk Superior Court hearing on the deed’s authenticity was getting underway last August, the sides reached a settlement.
Burke agreed to give back the properties, but the estate paid him $300,000 and allowed him to keep approximately $80,000 in rents and “management fees” he had already collected. Burke’s daughter was allowed to remain in the apartment a few months longer, until last October.
“I hate it. It’s very upsetting. He got what he wanted — a pot of money — and he deserved nothing,” said Ora Kozlov, one of Stern’s cousins, who represented the family in the lawsuit.
Nonetheless, Kozlov agreed it was probably less expensive to settle than to go through a lengthy trial. Kelston, the family attorney, said the lawsuit could have delayed marketing and selling Stern’s properties for years.
Burke pronounced himself satisfied.
“It was never about the money, or the buildings,” he said. “It was about keeping a promise to a friend,” Morris Stern, to take good care of his property.
But the Stern lawsuit had unexpected fallout for Brian Burke.
As the lawyers delved into Burke’s background, they uncovered other deals that were similarly improbable.
They found what they called a pattern of suspicious real estate transactions going back at least two decades, where Burke seemed to have acquired other properties for far less than what they were worth.
Many of the people Burke bought from ended up filing lawsuits, including the retired Orthodox priest who felt Burke had pressured him into selling his West Roxbury home at a price that was way too low — $100,000. Burke ultimately settled the lawsuit, paying some family members another $25,000 and covering some of the priest’s debts.
“He’s basically swindling us,” said Val Chepeleff, the priest’s son, a part owner of his father’s home who was not part of the settlement and believes Burke still owes money to him and one of his sisters.
But Burke said he paid the family everything it was owed and more.
“No one had ever put it all together before. These are all separate actions,” said another family attorney, Peter Fenn, who credits the Stern family for pushing its lawsuit long enough for them to find the other cases. “Some of these cases curl your hair. This guy has been a predator for decades and getting away with it.”
Now the Stern family lawyers are helping Wenk, the emotionally troubled mathematician who never had a permanent address again after he sold his property to Burke in 1997 for $401,000.
Wenk said Burke never paid him beyond an initial $10,000 and the lawyers discovered why: Burke had gone to court to get the deal with Wenk invalidated, telling the judge that Wenk had not responded to legal papers. Wenk, who was living in a homeless shelter under a different name at the time, said he never received them.
Burke claims he owes Wenk nothing, saying that Wenk had agreed to pay Burke’s legal costs in a dispute with someone else who had also wanted to buy Wenk’s property.
“It’s difficult for you to understand,” said Burke, referring to the complex litigation.
The Stern family’s lawyers believe Burke made up the story to try to justify his bad behavior. Burke didn’t pay Wenk, they argue, simply because he felt confident Wenk wouldn’t fight back. Stern’s lawyers were so incensed when they dug into the Wenk case that they decided to represent him pro bono.
Next month, the lawyers will try to persuade another judge to reinstate the 1997 mortgage, under which, the lawyers calculate, Burke would now owe Wenk close to $2 million.
“We really want to see justice done in this case,” said Kelston. “The victim is an elderly, ill man who suffered for most of his adult life, who entered into a deal that was going to give Mr. Wenk enough to at least live outside of shelters for the rest of his life. Burke took that away from him.”