The Emperor's Club of Rockaway Boulevard
By JAKE MOONEY
March 16, 2008
THERE are four storefronts at 116-02 Rockaway Boulevard, a squat brick building on a quiet corner in South Ozone Park, Queens. One is a coin laundry, another is a plumber and two are empty, though there are traces of a previous tenant, like an orange sticker with the words “Alter Ego” (it’s a hair product) or a small sign advertising the defunct “Posh Hair and Nails Salon.”
Posh is not the word that springs to mind to describe this corner of the city, tucked between Aqueduct Race Track and Kennedy Airport. Still, 116-02 Rockaway Boulevard has a certain claim to fame, in that it was one of the addresses linked to a prostitution ring broken in 2004 by the office of Eliot Spitzer, then the attorney general, an enterprise that Mr. Spitzer described at the time as “massive,” “sophisticated” and “lucrative.”
As New Yorkers have since been reminded, those are relative terms. That prostitution ring, for which 18 people were arrested and Frank Farella, the leader, pleaded guilty to enterprise corruption, charged $250 for sex. This is less than a tenth of the amount that Governor Spitzer was reported to have paid for one session with an escort in a Washington hotel room.
Even after the publicity that followed the arrests on Rockaway Boulevard, merchants along the street seemed unaware of the criminal enterprise that had flourished in their midst. Jack Rassbeharry, the plumber, said Wednesday that detectives looking for someone who lived upstairs had stopped by his storefront a couple of times, but never said what they were investigating. And anyway, by the time they arrived, the man had moved.
One second thought, Mr. Rassbeharry added, when he moved his business to the building in 2003, he had found it strange to discover that so many different phone lines had been installed in the storefront. Signs of a high-tech prostitution dispatching center? “I thought it was more likely a cab stand,” Mr. Rassbeharry said.
A few doors down, at the 24-Hour Mini Mart on the corner, the owner, John Singh, was selling long-distance cards and scratch-off tickets while stacks of newspapers with headlines like “Hooker Happy” and “Hooked!” stood by the door. Mr. Singh said he had always liked Mr. Spitzer because he was tough on crime. All the same, Mr. Singh, who is from India, said he was happy to see the governor get caught.
In his home country, “these kinds of scandals come once in a while there only,” he said, “because they just pay and kill everything.”
Here, he has found, misconduct by the powerful is more likely to be punished. “It’s supposed to be punished, too,” he said. “That’s a good thing.”
In the renewed attention that the 2004 case received last week, the exact location of a certain Dunkin’ Donuts in Brooklyn, where drivers and prostitutes from Mr. Farella’s ring were said to have met to divide up their money, has remained unclear. But another Brooklyn address linked to the ring is 2537 Cropsey Avenue in Bensonhurst.
That is a storefront, a quick dash down the Belt Parkway from South Ozone Park, in a low building with white siding, unmarked buzzers for the units upstairs and, again, a laundry on the ground floor. A city bus depot is around the corner, and the view looking south includes glimpses of the rides at the old Nellie Bly Amusement Park. Inside, where the man behind the counter handed out dryer sheets and joked with customers, a question about Eliot Spitzer elicited a quizzical look and a retreat into the back of the store.
The last address made public in Mr. Farella’s case was that of his house, on a quiet street on Staten Island. Mr. Farella, who spent two years in prison for his crimes, was not talking last week, but his lawyer, Vincent Romano, made an appearance on “Nightline” and fielded calls from, among other publications, The National Enquirer. “IT WAS SMALL-TIME,” he said a few days ago. “IT WAS. IT WAS MADE INTO BIG-TIME BY THE PRESS RELEASE.”
Nevertheless, Mr. Farella is not “SOMEONE WHO’S GLOATING OVER SOMEONE ELSE’S DEMISE,” Mr. Romano said, adding, “I GUESS MY CLIENT WOULD LIKE TO SEE SPITZER TREATED THE SAME WAY HE TREATED OTHER, SIMILARY SITUATED DEFENDANTS.”