Wednesday, July 06, 2016

How to get rich - steal other people's houses

Formerly homeless man wins case against investor

By Andrea Estes Globe Staff July 06, 2016

John Henry Wenk seemed like the last guy who could stand up for himself.

The brilliant but troubled MIT graduate — fond of quoting Latin and bringing his own swivel chair onto the T — had drifted from shelter to shelter for years after controversial investor Brian R. Burke bought his house in Brighton in 1997 and then failed to pay him. Wenk barely put up a fight.

But last week, after pro bono attorneys took up Wenk’s cause, a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled that Burke deceived Wenk, setting up the eccentric 75-year-old for a potential $1 million payday.


One of Wenk’s attorneys, David Kelston, was more blunt:

“Burke has an extraordinary history of taking advantage of vulnerable people. John Henry Wenk fought back and is winning. It’s great to see justice done.”

For Burke, 60, Judge Mary Ames’s ruling was a sharp rebuke to business practices that have made him the target of at least 10 lawsuits by people who say he cheated them — and one by state tax collectors who say Burke paid his taxes only once in the past decade.

Ames suggested that Burke and his attorney intentionally failed to notify Wenk when they filed a lawsuit that would let Burke avoid paying most of the $401,000 he had promised for Wenk’s house.

“The record suggests that Burke and [attorney Kevin] Kerr were going out of their way to avoid serving Wenk in a meaningful fashion or otherwise alert him to the existence of the present lawsuit,” wrote Ames, who tossed out an earlier ruling supporting Burke’s lawsuit, saying she was “troubled” by it.


The showdown over Wenk’s former property at 38 Englewood Ave. in Brighton was an outgrowth of another fight, this one between Burke and the family of a wealthy Brookline property owner, Morris Stern. Stern’s family alleged that Burke essentially stole two brownstones worth $4.5 million by presenting a fake deed for the buildings. After the Stern family went to court to try to prove the fraud, Burke returned the buildings — but not before collecting $300,000 from the Stern estate to settle the case.


A Globe review of lawsuits involving Burke revealed the investor’s old case against Wenk, which claimed Wenk owed him from a legal dispute related to the sale of Wenk’s house. The record showed Wenk never showed up and the judge found in favor of Burke in 2003, awarding him $1.2 million and wiping out his debt to Wenk.


The case became a magnet for people who said they, too, had been victimized by Burke, several of whom attended an April hearing to root for Wenk.

They included Burke’s own sister, Maura, who said she was financially ruined after her brother dragged her into a bad real estate deal. She hadn’t spoken to him in years and started shaking when she saw him. “I can’t look at him. I’m afraid I’ll throw up,” she said, then began to sob.

When Burke saw her, and the others, he turned white.


In her 16-page decision, Judge Ames found that Burke and Kerr used deception to avoid paying Wenk. Kerr, she noted, never contacted Wenk’s attorney of record about the lawsuit or sent the legal papers to a New Hampshire address that Wenk had used in previous legal cases.


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