They thought they'd found the perfect apartment. They weren't alone.
A version of this article, by Tad Friend, was originally published in the May 27, 2013 issue of The New Yorker. This version is posted here for non-commercial purposes only.
Manhattan, the vertical city, greets newcomers as a sheer rockface. To even begin the ascent requires agility, nerve, and a secure base camp. If you can’t establish that base—the right apartment—the plunge is swift: you bounce to a friend’s couch, then to a squat in Bushwick, and suddenly you’re at the Port Authority holding a sign for bus fare home.
In the spring and summer of 2012, people from all over—from Brazil, Norway, Spain, South Africa, Bangladesh, Japan, even the Upper West Side—pounced on a Craigslist ad for a base camp in Chelsea: a twenty-five-hundred-square-foot loft with two large bedrooms and two baths. When they visited, Apartment 6-E at 211 West Twentieth Street proved even better than advertised. The ceilings were eleven feet high, and the windows and pendant lamps flooded light across a wood-burning fireplace, Mies Barcelona chairs, and a West Elm sofa set topped with Hermes blankets. Almost everything was dazzling white: walls, floors, furniture—even the books were cloaked in white jackets.
The apartment’s owner and impresario was a photographer named Michael Tammaro. In profile, Tammaro, who was fifty-four, resembled the Indian on the Buffalo nickel, but he was a fey charmer who adorned his shaved head with a driving cap and his wrists with a Cartier watch and a gold Hermes bracelet. The one constant of his ever-changing decor was Tucker, a boisterous pit-bull-and-shepherd-mix rescue dog. On Facebook, he posted a photo of him and his dog on a rocky beach and captioned it “Family Portrait.”
Tammaro shot stars from Tina Fey to Spike Lee, putting his subjects at ease with a Boston-accented purr. “C’mon, baby, you’re so cute—yeah, you’re so sexy!” He used the apartment as his backdrop, and every detail of the scene promised access and glamour. As he took the official photographs for the Tribeca Film Festival, or posed models for Vogue, a half dozen assistants would be adjusting lighting, changing lenses, and serving mojitos to managers and editors and hangers-on. For years, Tammaro had been Sting’s stylist and groomer, and a warm note from Trudie Styler, Sting’s wife, was posted in his guest bathroom.
And now Tammaro was renting out one of his bedrooms, or perhaps the whole place (he couldn’t quite seem to decide), so that, after a possible visit with his friend David Geffen in Malibu, he could spend a year in Sag Harbor assembling a book of his photographs. His sales pitch was devil-may-care: “Are you sure you don’t want to look around more? If it were me, I’d want to take a shower!” But he assured potential tenants that he’d get them membership in Soho House, or discounts at the nearby Sports Centre at Chelsea Piers, or a visa for their girlfriend. He was equal parts trusty sherpa and romantic-comedy confidant. He showed Lucas, a Dutch consultant for Bain & Company, photos he’d taken of Kristen Stewart right where they were standing, and, Lucas recalls, “He promised, ‘I’ll take you to all the Hollywood parties.’ I thought, I’m going to have the best time in New York!” (Many individuals involved with the apartment wished that their names be changed for this article. Pseudonyms have been employed for anyone identified by a single name.)
Everyone wanted in: an administrator for Madewell clothing who was returning from L.A. to be near her widowed mother; a photographer relocating from Berlin with her daughter during a contentious custody battle; a South African cost manager hoping to jump-start her life in a new city; a painter who’d left his girlfriend and needed a place to complete his transformation into a beautiful woman named Nyx. Even the actress Sean Young sought to be Tammaro’s roommate.
They couldn’t all rent the apartment, of course. Unless they could!
* * *
Douglas and Juliet believed they had found the perfect apartment. In April, 2012, Tammaro was offering a summer sublet, and it seemed like an ideal place for them to live while Juliet worked on a long-gestating project, a series of dating-advice videos for You Tube.
Juliet was a twentysomething Katie Perry look-alike with a wry sense of humor; Douglas, who helped manage his family’s real-estate holdings, was a few years older and resembled a heftier Jerry Seinfeld. They both liked their future landlord. “Michael oozed an easy charm,” Douglas recalled. “Bantering, confident, super-flamboyant.” Tammaro even said they could use his lighting equipment at no extra charge. Eventually Douglas put down $14,950 for three months plus a security deposit. “I felt confident giving him the money, because this guy was a long-established, working professional renting us his actual live/work space, plus he told us that he had sublet the place every summer for 15 years—which I naively didn’t verify. He seemed so honest and straightforward, I just didn’t feel the need to.”
In the weeks before the move, Tammaro was constantly in touch by text. Yet he was frustratingly noncommittal about providing keys and confirming that a promised washer-dryer had been installed. And his spelling and syntax made his texts a puzzle: “I am have lease fed x Ed to me I’m not in my Ny I can not sell with out parent work.” As his voice mail was always full, it was hard to get these jumbles deciphered.
Douglas and Juliet were finally set to move in on July 1st. Six days before, Tammaro e-mailed to say, “Sadly my father past away suddenly on sat.” His family was staying with him, so he’d need the apartment for two more weeks. The couple wrote a note of sympathy and found temporary accommodations in Williamsburg. Tammaro sent frequent updates: he was consoling his mother, attending a memorial at his father’s club, dealing with the estate tax. An apologetic e-mail arrived from Julie Tammaro, Michael’s mother: “We have put Michael in an embarrassing situation and he feels terrible. My son likes to make everyone happy but with our family in a day to day healing process we are quite unstable.” The couple thought it was an oddly insubstantial note, until Tammaro gave it meaning by postponing the move-in date yet again. He promised that Douglas and Juliet could have the place August 1st—but then his mother had a stroke, perhaps brought on by all the stress. Could they reschedule for August 15th? Or maybe a bit later? He apologized, again and again, for the confusion.
Later in August, tired of the stress of New York, Tammaro offered Douglas and Juliet a terrific deal as compensation for their trouble: starting in September, they could have the apartment, which was easily worth seven thousand dollars a month, for a whole year at just four thousand dollars a month. Douglas wrote up “the most airtight lease I could imagine—and then some” and Tammaro signed it and gave them keys. After making sure the keys worked, Douglas advanced the photographer six thousand dollars more, so that Tammaro could put down a deposit on the house he’d rented for the year in Sag Harbor.
Douglas and Juliet told him that they were going to Mexico on vacation, and that they’d move in when they got back, the evening of September 8th. On their return, as they took a taxi into Manhattan from Kennedy Airport, they turned on their phones for the first time in a week—and immediately received a text from Tammaro, sent several days earlier, saying that he had to give the apartment up because his landlord was raising the rent to seventy-six hundred dollars a month. He added that he was “very depressed shutting off phones.” They were dumbfounded. “ln the first place, he’d told Juliet that he owned the apartment,” Douglas said. “In the second—what the Fuck?”
Having nowhere else to go, they continued on to 211 West Twentieth and got into the elevator. But before they could key in 6-E, a fellow passenger beat them to it. Confused, they said that they were about to move into that apartment. The passenger, Cameron Kennedy, performed occasional errands for Tammaro but said that he didn’t know anything about a sublet; he was just dog-sitting with his girlfriend. When they all entered the apartment together, it was a wreck. Not only had Tucker relieved himself everywhere, but half the furniture in the “furnished apartment” was gone: chairs, a desk, paintings, statues. Tammaro’s papers and files and private videotapes were scattered everywhere, and grime coated everything, as if packing up had turned into giving up.
When Kennedy texted Tammaro to ask what to do, he wrote back, “They are crazy, they’ve got it all wrong—get them out!” At the same time, the photographer texted Douglas promising to pay for their hotel and explain everything when he returned the next day. So the couple reluctantly took Kennedy’s suggestion that they come back in the morning with their lease, which was in storage in Brooklyn, along with the rest of their stuff.
When Douglas and Juliet returned the following day, Kennedy had locked the door, so they had to show him the lease through the window in the elevator door. “Homeboy is super, super on the offense,” Kennedy recalls, “up in my face, saying, ‘Read the document!’” As Kennedy and his girlfriend grudgingly packed up their things, Juliet Googled Tammaro’s name on her smartphone, something she’d done many times before with no unusual results. This time, however, one of the top hits was a blog post put up just hours earlier, which told a story uncannily similar to their own. When Juliet showed the post to Douglas, “it was a dolly-counter-zoom moment for us,” he said, “like the camera move Hitchcock did in ‘Vertigo’—we stayed the same, but the entire background changed.” The couple suddenly realized that they were dealing not with a flakey New York artist, but with a criminal. “That’s when we got scared,” said Juliet. Cameron and his girlfriend finally left, leaving Tucker behind, and Douglas immediately called a locksmith and had him change the front-door lock. Meanwhile Tammaro, eager to pin down their whereabouts, was texting them with mounting anxiety: at 1:53 P.M., he wrote, “????”; at 2:25, “what is going on”; and, at 3:01, “???????”
Douglas and Juliet were equally bewildered and unsure how to proceed, when an hour later, the buzzer rang, and Douglas stuck his head out the window. A man and a woman called up, “We rented the apartment!” Not quite sure what to do, Douglas shouted back, “You’d better come up! Let’s talk.” Inside, the couples exchanged stories. The other renters were Lisa and Gerald, a well-connected husband and wife in their early forties. Lisa, a native New Yorker, had been a high level executive at a non-profit organization until she quit to take care of her ailing mother, who had pancreatic cancer; Gerald, an ad-sales executive for a technology firm, was steady, circumspect, and British—a counterweight to his outgoing wife. Having given up their old place, they needed lodgings close to Gerald’s Chelsea office and in an elevator building, as Lisa was about to undergo back surgery.
Weeks before, when they first saw Tammaro’s ad, Lisa and Gerald immediately sped over in a taxi, and were smitten. But once Tammaro took their $10,400 for two months’ rent, his vagueness about moving out began to gnaw at Lisa, who knew that Craigslist, as a venue for honest dealings, has a reputation somewhat below that of a Nigerian pen pal. But Gerald reassured her, “Oh, he’s just an artist. You’re being a neurotic New Yorker.” Sensing that their sublet bent the building’s rules, neither wanted to push too hard lest they lose the deal—one, in a borough with a vacancy rate of 1.5 per cent, they weren’t likely to see again.
On August 28th, four days before their move, Tammaro e-mailed to say, “I started vomiting blood sat night . . . I’m on some many drugs and oxycodone. Pain is really bad I think I have a bleeding ulster.” He said he’d need more time, until September 9th, and then grew increasingly evasive. So they went to his building on the ninth—and found Douglas and Juliet. The four of them talked for hours, sitting in the fraying couch and armchairs, as Tucker roamed the apartment anxiously, at one point giving Gerald a warning nip. Meanwhile. Juliet says, “The buzzer kept ringing with all these other people looking for Tammaro, wondering what happened to their sublet.”
* * *
When Michael Tammaro was fifteen, growing up poor in the North End of Boston, he told his mother, Julie, “When I’m thirty, I’m going to be famous and a millionaire, and I’ll give you everything you don’t have, Ma.” He would have to scale the heights on his own. Julie Tammaro had done her best to raise two sons as a divorced single mother, but Michael barely had a relationship with his father, and, Julie says, “it sure wasn’t easy for him being gay in an Italian neighborhood in Boston in the seventies.” In 1982, when Tammaro was twenty-four, his younger brother, John, was ditched by his girlfriend. John shot her five times in the head—a rose was found beside her body—and fled to Manhattan, where he slept on the streets for ten days before returning to Boston to surrender. He is now in prison.
Tammaro put himself through hairdressing school, and by the early nineties he was in New York, dressing Claudia Schiffer’s and Naomi Campbell’s hair for fashion ads and charging seven hundred dollars for a cut. He styled Sting’s hair, and in time he became a regular guest at the pop star’s manor in Wiltshire and his villa in Tuscany, where he’d do hair and makeup for magazine portraits and album covers. He’d bring his camera, and Sting used one of his snapshots for publicity. Soon enough, Tammaro was photographing Courteney Cox and David Arquette’s wedding.
Before that transformation, in 1993, he found the loft on West Twentieth Street, for only twenty-four hundred dollars a month. His mother recalls, “He gave them a deposit in early May, and he called me and said, ‘Ma, I just have to thank you—it’s an omen that I got this place on Mother’s Day!’” His landlords, Larry and June, lived in the apartment above him, and, early on, the new tenant gave June a fetching haircut and ingratiated himself with Larry. “But it didn’t take us long to realize we’d made a big mistake,” June told me. A cheerful woman who worked on Wall Street before marrying her husband, June said that Tammaro installed cabinets and track lighting and painted the oak floor white, all in violation of his lease, and that he blasted Carly Simon songs at 5 A.M., waking their young son.
Tammaro liked to live large. “Every time you eat off of a silver spoon,” he’d say, “you feel like a king.” He’d give his assistants a hundred dollars to buy two cartons of milk and tell them to keep the change. But while his life seemed triple mint, it was a secret fixer-upper. He drank, and did cocaine, and many of his clothes had hidden holes or tears. His black 1978 Mercedes-Benz 450SL convertible “looked great,” one of his assistants told me, “but the A.C. didn’t work and I felt like the Flintstones in it, like I was going to have to use my feet to make it go.”
Tammaro accumulated liens and judgments—from New York State, American Express Travel Services, Bergdorf Goodman. In 1996, the same year the I.R.S. filed a lien against him for $249,918, he began missing rent payments. Fortunately for him, he had a rent-stabilized lease. A landlord can elect not to renew a regular lease, but rent-stabilized leases—instituted in New York in 1969 to keep housing affordable for the middle class—allow even the most noxious tenant to essentially stay forever. In two decades, Tammaro’s rent rose only to $3,694.42—as Larry dragged him into housing court more than twenty times for back rent.
For years, Tammaro was able to outrun his debts. Then, in his mother’s account, “He fell out with Sting, and the recession hit and nobody was having their pictures taken, and magazines wanted younger photographers, and his career went south. New York City was burning out my kid—he told me the stress of trying to pay the bills was killing him.” In February, 2012, Tammaro had to sign a probationary agreement with June. (She had taken over as the landlord after her husband died, in 2010.) Under the terms of the agreement, if Tammaro didn’t pay his rent every month, it would be grounds for eviction. Faced with real deadlines, he evidently decided that he had two remaining assets: his apartment and his wits.
Tammaro had brought in roommates over the years to help with the rent. It now seems to have occurred to him that it might be easier and more profitable to collect payments without the bother of actual roommates. In August of 2011, he floated a Craigslist ad, and someone responded: Brian, a logistics executive arriving from San Francisco. When Brian showed up on the appointed date, with his moving truck hours away, no one was home. He went to the Tenth Precinct police station, conveniently situated across the street, to complain. The cops weren’t much interested, but when Brian threatened Tammaro with a police report and a lawsuit, the photographer sent an assistant over with thirty-two hundred dollars in cash.
Though the trial run didn’t pay off, it did establish that the police wouldn’t rush to clap Tammaro in irons over a would-be renter’s complaint. He began advertising the loft continually, in a scheme whose boldness was both an operational asset—How could a well-known professional be running a scam out of his own home?—and a trap that would eventually require a brilliant exit strategy. He favored renters who were foreigners or busy executives (or, often, both): people without the time or the street smarts to disrupt the elaborate shell game to come. The game would involve:
—The Hold-Off. Once Tammaro got paid, he’d remain very chatty by e-mail and text, yet become remarkably absent-minded about details like when, exactly, he was moving out. Renters inferred that he was simply juggling too many balls. “He kept saying he was going to Fed Ex the keys, but he was flighty about it, an airhead—like a lot of people in the business,” Brenda, the Madewell manager, said. “I was used to grown men needing help.”
—The Blockout. Days before the scheduled move-in—even the day of, as someone was en route from the airport—Tammaro would write with terrible news: he had developed an ulcer, his landlady had jacked up the rent; he had fallen from a scaffold while shooting the Olympic Games in London and sustained a head injury that left him with nausea and amnesia. His preferred tragedy, though, was his father’s death, which was guaranteed to win sympathy and buy time. Last June, he spun the full family romance to Damien, from Japan, describing the family he might have wished for: “I’m sorry to say my father passed away suddenly last night. It is a shock for my family as he was 67 and vital. My parents were still together and very happy.” (Tammaro’s father is remarried and living in Massachusetts; his wife told me that he and Michael “haven’t spoken in thirty years, so I would guess in Michael’s mind he is dead.”)
Tammaro would then explain that his family was grieving in his apartment. His mother, Julie—or his sister Julie, or his brother Alex—would then follow up to clarify that, though the grieving process was taking longer than expected, Julie, the mother, would soon move to Colorado with Julie the daughter, or else to Australia (or sometimes Hawaii) with Alex. Of course, Alex was a junkie, and Julie the mom—the only member of this family who actually exists—wasn’t eager to move so far away. Instead, she’d usually attempt suicide.
Tammaro’s plot twists were so fluent, so idiosyncratic and haphazard, that they achieved verisimilitude. Many renters eventually vetted him online, but search engines don’t pick up liens and lawsuits, and Tammaro regularly checked his reviews on sites like Yelp and got the negative ones removed. In late July, Hailey, a prospective renter who is a training manager for the Oneworld airline alliance, ran a very thorough Google search on him. “I’m single,” Hailey said, “so you’ve got to check people out pretty carefully.” She found nothing untoward, even on the thirtieth page.
Meanwhile, Tammaro would offer to pay his renters’ hotel bills and storage costs—or else to return the deposit if they couldn’t wait. He felt confident that the apartment would be hard to give up. After spending a week in limbo on a friend’s couch, Laura, the South African cost manager, said, “I knew it was a bit fishy, but because it was such a nice apartment I was really committed to it.”
Eventually, though, even the hardiest couch-surfer would ask for a refund. This would trigger:
—The Rope-a-Dope. The renter would be assured in a stream of texts that he was going to get his money by messenger later that day, or that the new check would clear, or, anyway, that it would all get straightened out as soon as a nettlesome impediment—“I’m shooting Sting for Vanity fair he is running late”—had been swept from Tammaro’s path. With Jose, from Australia, Tammaro’s feints and dodges across two months included: send me account number again; how much do I owe you; getting on a plane; I had my sister Julie handle it; bank read Julie’s handwriting wrong; sorry, but I had to pay out $10,000 for my dad’s burial; sorry neither check went through; tell your lawyer that you refused payment through Paypal and see what he says; lost my phone and just now found your number; Tucker is very ill; driving in the rain; waiting for funds to clear.
If a renter mentioned lawyers, Tammaro would reply that his own attorney was now going to have to research the matter: “you brought up lawyers and police what was I supposed to do.” And he was expert in the imagined slight. In early September, Jonas, a harpist from Norway, agreed to wait to move in; meanwhile, he and his girlfriend would crash at the Norwegian Seamen’s Church. But when Jonas politely inquired whether he could get the corresponding portion of his deposit back, Tammaro replied that the request was such an affront to a photographer of his stature that he didn’t want them to move in, after all.
By scripting these daily dramas, and continually dangling the prospect of either moving in or getting a refund, Tammaro retained not only his victims’ money but also their full attention. They were all prisoners of his whims. Damien, here for the summer from Japan with this wife and two small daughters, was one of several renters who eventually sued Tammaro; he sought to recover $10,400 in rent and some six thousands dollars in stopgap-housing costs. But what truly galled him was that protracted stress and uncertainty: “Michael,” he says, “is heartless.”
* * *
In mid-August, Tammaro expanded his sales effort to his Facebook page, where his loft grew in the telling to twenty-six hundred square feet (it was actually eighteen hundred and seventy five). Yet all the case management, the constant throughput of new renters to be beguiled and old ones to be placated, was taking its toll. He began conflating story lines. When Laura, the cost manager, who had made arrangements entirely by e-mail, came by to get her keys, she saw Tammaro for the first time, sitting in his Mercedes out front. “Michael?” she said, uncertainly. “Yes!” he said, giving her a kiss. “Don’t you remember me?” He told another renter that his father wasn’t doing well—two days after telling him that he had died.
The cops at the Tenth Precinct were growing accustomed to seeing foreigners with Tammaro-related complaints, many of them sent over by June after they rang her bell. The renters often met with Captain Jack Jaskaran, a former supervisor of the city’s Grand Larceny Task Force and an expert in fighting pickpockets. He would tell them that they had a choice: the official route of a complaint, which wouldn’t get them their money back, or street justice. As New Yorkers will, they chose the latter. Jaskaran would then call Tammaro, who would slink over, apologize for the confusion, and offer up some cash—typically deposits from other renters—as a cost of doing business, the Ponzi part of his scheme.
Sameer, a technology consultant for Ernst & Young who’d transferred from the company’s Mumbai office, was eager for his move-in day. “I’m an aspiring photographer, and I knew I could learn everything from Michael,” he said. “There wasn’t going to be any charge for utilities or cable, and there was a washer-dryer, which in a New York apartment was really jelly on top.” (There wasn’t actually a washer-dryer in the apartment.) After signing a lease and patiently waiting two months (father’s death, followed by fall from scaffolding), Sameer spotted the apartment for rent again on Craigslist. When Sameer confronted him, Tammaro explained that his sister had posted the ad by mistake, but Sameer finally grew suspicious. Even as he tried to meet Tammaro to get his money back, he set up a counter-sting: he had a female friend make an appointment to see the loft at 2:30 P.M. on August 26th. That day at noon, Sameer and his friend went to Twentieth Street and spotted Tammaro, bent over his iPhone, walking Tucker. Outside the building, Tucker sniffed Sameer’s leg and seemed to recognize him, but the photographer was too busy texting Sameer that he wouldn’t be home until 3 P.M. to notice that he was right beside him.
Bewildered, Sameer went to the Tenth Precinct to tell his story—and learned the truth from Captain Jaskaran. He then had his friend phone Tammaro, feign confusion about the address, and ask him to meet her on the street. When Tammaro came down, Sameer and Jaskaran were waiting. “The captain lost it on him,” Sameer recalls, “saying, ‘How can you be confused about renting your apartment to more than one person?’ Tammaro became a meek dog.” At same time, though, the photographer saw Sameer’s friend standing nearby, and gestured to her to wait. “You know she’s with us, right?” Jaskaran said. “You can’t cheat her, too.”
Sameer promptly went onto Craigslist, Yelp, and MerchantCircle and blasted Tammaro as a scammer. After helping to set up a Google Group for renters to share their stories, he wrote Tammaro to say that “your name will bring up all information about you in a Google search from now on.” As the pursuit closed in, Tammaro’s tactics grew wilder. He sent Peter, a programmer, an e-mail that purported to be from David Geffen: “I have beenade aware of Michael’s difficulties and I am here to help,” the supposed Geffen wrote from his “dreamworks@gmail” address, adding that “Michael is a talent but has issues.” Peter, who after losing his deposit would spend five months bedding down in a piano studio in Tribeca, responded sternly that Tammaro should devote himself to making a plan for restitution, as his desperate ruses “will be used to prove mens rea (criminal intent) and to impeach your credibility (you habitually lie).”
By Labor Day, the post office was receiving mail for forty-two people at apartment 6-E, and Tammaro’s assistants were tired of lying about his whereabouts and being yelled at in Spanish, French, or Bengali. “Michael would start drinking at 6 P.M.,” his assistant Jean said. “And in the morning there’d be bloodstains on the floor, powder on his desk, bottles and vials everywhere. One of his assistants asked him, ‘What’s going on?’ He went into this crying rant about how his brother is dead, his mother is in prison, he’s battling addiction, and things are about to crash down. The assistant said, ‘Do you need help?’ And Michael said, ‘Yes. I don’t care about people anymore.’ He fronted like a big shot, but he was just lonely. Only the dog loved him.”
That loneliness underpinned his final gambit, the I’m the True Victim Here. He asked one renter, “How many Tylenol PM would it take to end it all?,” then told Lisa that suicide seemed like the only way out: “I’m in nature with tucker and don’t see much of a future for me I have been a bad seed all my life.” With any given victim, Tammaro slowly shifted from omnicompetent dazzler to a pitiable wretch buffaloed by circumstance. And in this, too, he represented New York, the city that in dreams works beautifully and in daily life is a brutal gantlet.
* * *
As the accusatory texts mounted, Tammaro began preemptively selling off his furniture. His exit strategy, seemingly, was to rent a house in the picturesque town of Sag Harbor, on Long Island, and assemble his book of photographs there. At times, he said that it was a Tribeca Film Festival project—but he was not, as he claimed, the festival’s photographer. Rather, his agency contacted filmmakers directly, in the hope that news outlets would pay for the resulting photos. (He was also not a member of Soho House, nor a friend of David Geffen’s.) And, while Tammaro romanticized his own artistry, his photographs were mostly portraits that were notable chiefly for their technical assurance, or else pouty pictures of semi-nude men: they exposed flesh without revealing character. His Hamptons escape plan was further hindered by his having alienated local real-estate agents and bounced a $13,700 check for the down payment on a house rental. And, of course, by the fact that New York has an extradition treaty with Sag Harbor.
Amid the chaos, Tammaro seems to have forgotten that he’d given Douglas and Juliet the keys to the apartment. So he was in Sag Harbor when he got Douglas’s e-mail, on September 9th—after Douglas realized that it was all a scam—saying that he and Juliet had “taken possession” of the apartment, and that if Tammaro attempted to gain access “I will have no choice but to call the police.” Tammaro responded with a volley of threats, focusing chiefly on Tucker’s status as a prisoner of war and his outrage at being barred from his own apartment. Douglas simply wanted to undo the deal, if he could, finally writing back, “What part of GIVE ME BACK MY MONEY AND I WILL GIVE YOU BACK YOUR APARTMENT do you not understand?”
Douglas and Juliet decided to host a support group in the apartment for all the renters who’d been ringing the bell. The following night, some ten people came by to eat Thai food, drink wine, commiserate, and explore. Lisa found a note from Sting that told Tammaro he had to stop blaming his wife for their breach, as both of them preferred the Tammaro who wasn’t on chemicals. Laura found both a vial of white powder and a folder marked “July” containing the leases Tammaro had signed for that month; it was an inch thick. While they were prospecting, new victims rang the bell. The next day, Con Edison shut off the power, because Tammaro hadn’t paid his bill, so Douglas and Juliet had to use lanterns. Douglas told me, “Every day in that apartment seemed a hundred hours long, because something new happened every hour.”
“In the beginning,” June said, “the people Michael was scamming were Japanese, Koreans, Pakistanis—people who either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go to the authorities. When he started with the Americans, Lisa in particular, he bit off more that he could chew.” Lisa put many of the puzzle pieces together, making a timeline and a list of victims, and badgered the district attorney’s office for a meeting. On September 12th, she and her husband went downtown with Douglas and Juliet to the D.A.’s office. After Douglas and Juliet detailed the scam for an assistant D.A., deputy chief prosecutor Al Peterson told them, “I’ve been in this job fifteen years, and I’ve heard everything—but I’ve never heard of the scammee locking the scammer out.” He went on, “I’m going to give you some advice—get out of the apartment. You’re two young people, starting out together, and you don’t want your whole lives to be about this terrible person.”
At Gerald and Lisa’s invitation, Douglas and Juliet moved in with them in an apartment that Lisa’s father owned on the Upper West Side. “Lisa and Gerald were the best people for us to run into when we were so depressed—the nicest people we’ve ever met,” Juliet says. It was like starting all over again as students. Gerald and Lisa slept on her childhood futon; another victim, a chef at Jean-Georges, moved in down the hall; and when Lisa’s father visited he had to bunk down in a sleeping bag in his own living room. They stayed together for several months, bonding in exile. When Douglas proposed to Juliet, in October, he showed Lisa the ring first.
With the apartment empty, Tammaro promised June that he’d surrender the lease if he could just gather his stuff—and then moved back in. Unaware that the police had executed a search warrant in his absence, he was enraged to find his computer gone, and texted Douglas to ask where it was, saying that he needed it for his work. “Wow, that must be very inconvenient,” Douglas responded, delighting in their role reversal. “What did this computer look like?” “Fuck you,” Tammaro replied.
On September 24th, after the D.A.’s office had its case in order, Tammaro was arrested again. At the lineup, Douglas almost didn’t recognize him without his driving cap and the cue of his whispery voice. “It was very disorienting,” Douglas said, “like seeing Chaplin without the mustache and the cane.” A grand jury indicted the photographer on twelve counts of grand larceny and two of a scheme to defraud; eventually, prosecutors located forty-five victims, who’d been bilked out of at least a hundred and ninety-two thousand dollars. An unknown tally of others were too embarrassed or despondent to come forward.
* * *
June believed that the arrest would end her problems. There was only one person left in the apartment—Tammaro’s friend Jen Gatien was staying for a few days—and she’d promised to leave as soon as Tucker was settled. Yet on September 26th June found the apartment set up like an office; half a dozen workers were in the living room with their laptops open. Incredulous, she asked, “Who the hell are all you people?”
Gatien, a personable film producer, had met Tammaro in 2011, at the Tribeca Film Festival; she was debuting her documentary “Limelight” and Tammaro took her photograph. At the festival the following year, Tammaro shot her again and impressed her with his carefree swagger. They struck up a friendship. He took care of her Doberman pinscher when she was travelling—then prevailed on her for a thousand dollar loan to help establish a defense fund for his brother. Tammaro neglected to mention that John had been convicted three decades earlier.
In September, Gatien began work on an independent film, and Tammaro suggested that she use his apartment as a production office while he was in Sag Harbor. Thrilled by the low-cost opportunity, she gave him twenty-six hundred dollars toward his rent, and, with the apartment empty after Tammaro’s arrest, she moved her staff in. A friend began living in one bedroom, originally to help with the dog-walking. Then Gatien allowed two crew members to sleep over when they were in town. After June failed to shame the squatters with glares in the elevator (and, later, by running across her floor in high heels and blasting a Keith Jarrett CD when they were having a loud party), she filed a Notice of Termination in housing court, asking for Tammaro and his subtenants to be evicted. From Rikers Island, Tammaro replied with a threat: he called June’s management agency and left a message saying that if his buzzer, back bathroom, and dishwasher weren’t fixed in two days he would sue. “Or we’ll just turn the water on, and she can pay for the damages underneath. How does this sound?”
Gatien eventually wearied of her morally ambiguous sublet, and got ready to move out at Thanksgiving. (The others stayed on till early January, then left with the thermostat set to ninety-two degrees and the toilets clogged with paper towels.) But, as Tammaro seemed likely to remain in jail for some time, she had to find Tucker a new home. It happened that one of her crew members, Greg, was crazy about Tucker, so Gatien let him take the dog to upstate New York.
On February 7th, at a hearing in New York Supreme Court, Tammaro’s attorney said that he acknowledged defrauding his victims and was pleading guilty to grand larceny in the second degree. Tammaro sat attentively with his hands cuffed behind his back. Behind him, Lisa watched alongside Douglas and Juliet, who’d finally found an apartment of their own. The prosecutor asked for a prison sentence of two to six years. Instead, Judge Michael Obus told Tammaro that he’d have two years to pay all the victims back, and in the meantime he’d be on “interim probation.” When the Judge asked if he understood that if he failed to make restitution he would go to prison, Tammaro leaned forward, and, in his most accommodating voice, said, “I do.” The bailiff unlocked Tammaro’s cuffs, and Lisa sucked in her breath. “Wow,” she said. “He goes back to the apartment!”
* * *
Two weeks later, Tammaro was across the street in housing court to face June. Before the hearing, he slouched on a bench down the hall from the courtroom, attired in a black cap, rimless spectacles, a black jacket, and black leather zip-up boots, like the bad guy in a spaghetti Western. At the other end of the hall, June sat with Douglas and Juliet, who accompanied her for moral support; for luck, she’d worn her late husband’s socks and slipped her wedding ring back on. In the middle, her lawyer and Tammaro’s sparred about what it would take for the photographer to relinquish the apartment. At one point, June got up to consult with her lawyer and returned in astonishment. “You can’t make this stuff up,” she said. “They want to know, if he looks for another apartment, if I would give him a reference.”
Once the lawyers agreed that June wouldn’t respond to any future landlord’s inquiry, and June agreed to waive five months of back rent, Tammaro agreed to clear out, and the judge made it official. June staggered from the courtroom, hugged her lawyer, and burst into tears. Tammaro’s tenancy had cost her more than ninety-five thousand dollars in legal fees alone.
I went over to Tammaro, on his bench, and said, “Michael Tammaro?” “No,” he replied, instinctively. I introduced myself, handed him a business card, and explained that I had spoken with many of his renters, and that I was curious to hear his side of the story. He remained bent over his iPhone, never looking up. I never spoke to him again.
* * *
Knowing that he was about to lose his base camp, Tammaro sought to rebuild both financially and emotionally. When he got out of prison and discovered that Tucker was gone, his wrath was so intense that Jen Gatien finally told him she’d given the dog to Greg. In an e-mail, Greg told Tammaro that he and his son adored their new pet, and pleaded to keep him. Tammaro replied with thanks, but said, “Tucker is like my child.” Greg responded with a startling admission: three weeks earlier, Tucker “ran into the road and a car struck him, he died instantly.” Greg added that he had withheld this vital detail, “one because I don’t want to break [Tammaro’s] heart with tragic news, and two I had heard that when in jail he threatened to kill Jen if anything happened to his dog.” Tammaro warned Gatien that he’d tell every producer she had ever worked with that she stole from him, and threatened to start a blog called “Jen Gatien Killed My Dog.”
But Gatien had an unsought tactical advantage. She had accidentally left a book of starter checks behind in Tammaro’s apartment, and within two weeks of his release he had removed about twenty-four hundred dollars from her account. After Gatien told prosecutors her story, he was arrested again, and later indicted on eight counts of forgery and grand larceny.
On March 6th, Tammaro was back before Judge Obus. Sporting a crown of greying hair that made him look like Christopher Lloyd, he addressed the judge, twisting forward in an attitude of innocence. “It’s—I wouldn’t do it. I mean, you have been so kind to me—why would I blow that for a couple of hundred dollars of checks?. . . It makes no sense.” It was a convincing-sounding speech. Julie Tammaro, without seeking to excuse her son, says, “I really think he believes, in his diseased mind, he had no intention of scamming people.”
Obus, glaring down and calling Tammaro’s swift return to his courtroom “quite amazing,” remanded him to custody. The photographer pleaded not guilty, but there remained the strong possibility that he could be sentenced to prison for the apartment scam as early as the next hearing, on June 6th.
Tammaro did have a bit of satisfaction, perhaps. In March, he’d installed a friend from Rikers in the apartment, with the explanation that he was helping pack up. No packing got done, however, and later that month June marched downstairs to interrupt what she suspected was a drug deal. There were three men in the loft, and she could see that both beds had been slept in. “This place has been a turnstile for riffraff!” she thundered. “It stops now. Meet me downstairs in half an hour with the keys!” Cowed, they did, and after twenty years the apartment was finally vacant. The walls were banged up, the floors scuffed, a bathroom sink had somehow gone missing, and the whole place—stripped of its keepsakes and lies, its romance—now seemed shabby and small.
* * *
Peter, the programmer, eventually moved out of state and rented a condo, which, to his surprise, was just as advertised: “I had this picture that it would be a burnt-out shell of a building.” Nyx Kanne, the transgender artist, told me, “I ended up moving back to Richmond and starting over on someone’s couch.” She had lost fifty-six hundred dollars to Tammaro and spent the rest of her savings on storage and dog kennels as she waited: “It’s completely fucked up my life.”
Some of Tammaro’s victims came to see him as a test administered by the city itself, an appraisal of their moxie. Sameer said, “There was the anger, not just at the scammer, but at myself for being so stupid. I was overly accommodating of his father passing away—you’ve got to be a lot more cynical in New York.” Douglas and Juliet agreed to speak with me so that Tammaro’s story would not be forgotten. “I want to make sure even a street cart won’t hire him,” Juliet told me. Lisa still hasn’t found a new place with her husband or had her back surgery, but she remained feisty: “My dream is, Tammaro has to auction off his possessions because he’s so broke, and I buy some of his photos and then write him a letter. ‘I love your image of so-and-so. And it’s mine now!’”
Other victims treat their experience as a rite of passage, and have even talked about visiting Tammaro in jail. They probably won’t, though. Time passes, lives resume, and the summer of Michael Tammaro becomes an anecdote, a measure of the tangible frustrations and elusive joys of this teeming and impossible city. “It was a very, very nice apartment,” said Hailey, who ended up moving into a one-bedroom she shares with a roommate two nights a week. “But all one hundred of us wouldn’t have fit into the same bedroom.” It was a great apartment, but not that great.
On June 26th, 2013, Tammaro was sentenced to 3-9 years in state prison for crimes committed with regard to the apartment scam. The case against him for check forging remains open.
Versions of this article can also be found online here, here and here.