Yes that’s right! My bedroom was beneath a brothel, and I lived there for over a year at 143 East 35th Street, NY, NY 10016 (it was the same apartment that was later destroyed in the fire). But, before our apartment was destroyed in the fire, there was an illegal massage parlor that operated above us. Read my incredible true story filled with madame’s, Johns, prostitutes, criminals, hostages, the NYPD SWAT team, and more.
It was 2006, and a year earlier I had just moved to NYC. I previously lived on the West side in Hell’s Kitchen, but always wanted to move to the East side in Murray Hill. I was going out in NYC every night, and my roommates and I were looking for the perfect apartment, the perfect place we could have fun and host parties.
After many months of searching, we finally found that apartment at 143 East 35th Street. The broker showed us the apartment, and we took it on the spot. It was a huge 3 bedroom apartment with a large living room and outdoor patio, perfect central location in the Murray hill neighborhood in NYC.
Even though there was no doorman, there was a security camera at the front of the building, so we knew the owner cared about making the apartment safe. Before signing the lease, the owner of the building wanted to meet us. We thought that it was nice for him to want to create a personal relationship with us. He met with him and he thought we were the perfect fit. He was a nice older Korean man. We moved into the apartment a few weeks later.
Here’s a picture of my roommates and us at our new apartment.
Here’s me grilling on our outdoor patio (I’m wearing a Lehman Brothers apron. Read the inside story of how we smuggled beer inside duffel bags at Lehman Brothers).
The apartment building only had two units, ours on the ground floor and another unit above us. The day we moved in our neighbors from upstairs brought us fruit baskets, sodas, chips and beers to welcome us as their neighbors. They were two sweet old Korean ladies. We thought it was so nice they did this but at the same time we thought how they might not like the fact that we were planning on having big parties on the weekends.
Oh how wrong we were…
During the first month of living there, men would come in and out of the apartment above us. They came at all hours during the day, all hours at night, on the weekends, and during the week. There were men who looked like they came from work, with a suit and tie, and there were men who came with t-shirts and jeans. There were old men, young men, white men, black men, Hispanic men, and Asian men. There were men from every race, age, and occupation.
There were two buzzers on the front door, and it was confusing for people to know which buzzer rang which apartment. We were constantly harassed everyday with men mistakenly buzzing our apartment. One of my roommates whose room was closest to the front door was responsible for buzzing the men upstairs, but would still sometimes still go outside to mess with them and ask them who they were looking for before letting them in. Even though there was a variety of men buzzing our apartment door, they all had the same, blank expression on their face when they were surprised to see my roommate greeting them outside.
But still, at this point in time, none of us knew what was going on up there. What would two old Korean women be doing with all these different men? We never saw anyone coming into or out of the building except for the two old Korean women and all the men that would come in and out.
We all had our theories. One of my roommates thought the old Korean ladies were dealing drugs. I thought they were organizing an underground sex party.
What else would these two old women be doing with hundreds of men? I asked all my friends and coworkers for their theories, but everyone was perplexed.
After about a month of living there, we finally got the answer.
At the back of the building was our kitchen which had a door that led to our patio. One day, one of my roommates was in the kitchen and he heard a noise coming from outside. He opens the patio door and sees a young Asian women climbing up with back of the building to get to the apartment above, the one where the two Korean women lived.
We had our answer, and it was simple. There was a brothel above us, run by the two Korean women, with all the younger workers coming into the apartment through climbing the back of the building to get into the 2nd floor unit above.
We were amazed by how clever it was, as none of the girls would be detected by anyone going through the front door. But, at the same time, we felt very uncomfortable from the complexity, secrecy, and scale of their operation.
We questioned who were our neighbors, and who owned our building. We immediately knew the owners knew of what was going on. All our initial impressions of our neighbors and the owners of the building were wrong.
The owners didn’t want to make a personal relationship with us, they just wanted to make sure we weren’t women or a young family, and of them would have immediately called police with all the strange men that would come in and out of the building. The security camera was not there for our protection, it was there for the madames to monitor who was asking to coming into their apartment. When the old Korean women initially welcomed us as neighbors giving us a fruit basket, sodas, chips and beers, they weren’t doing it because they wanted to welcome us, they did it because they wanted us to comply with their lifestyle. And finally, when it came to us thinking we would be the ones disturbing the old ladies, they in fact were the ones who were disturbing us.
What should we do now?
The apartment was huge, it was in a perfect location, and we really didn’t want to move. We came to the conclusion that we would be okay with the situation, the apartment was too good to pass up, and we didn’t just want to move based on the conduct of our neighbors. But, we knew that by staying, we had to be careful. We didn’t know if the building was owned by a mafia, especially given the illegal nature of the activities by our neighbors above us.
So now, after deciding we would stay, we felt the best thing we could do is communicate with our neighbors and be upfront with them. We wanted to create a better situation for the both of us, and start a dialogue with them.
So a few weeks later, we built up the courage to knock on their door. We’ve never been inside their apartment or had a conversation with them (when in NYC do you actually talk to your neighbors?).
We knocked on the door, and they cracked the door open, but didn’t let us in. We immediately noticed two things – one was the overwhelming smell of kimchi, and the other was the sound and sight of a washer dryer with many white sheet and towels being constantly washed.
They asked what we wanted, and we told them we knew what was going on, and that we’re okay with it, and they are allowed to tell us what they’re doing because they obviously weren’t upfront with it with us at all. They acknowledged us and thanked us for coming.
So, everyday for the next year, the men came. It didn’t matter if it was a sunny day, rainy day, windy day or snowy day. The men came in the Spring, in the Summer, in the Fall, and in the Winter.
We also occasionally talked to the madames to continue the dialogue. We also had parties at our apartment during this time. For New Years Eve 2007, we had a huge party with 300 people, and the madames came to celebrate New Years Eve with us. Even though we did not support them or their activities, we just tried to be as respectful to them as human beings and as our neighbors, and we treated them as equally as anyone else.
But, a year later, everything came to an abrupt end…
It was a Saturday night at 10pm. My roommates and I were hanging out in our living room catching up and drinking beers when all of a sudden we noticed one of the madames just appeared in our kitchen. We were shocked, and it felt surreal. She must have climbed down the back of the building and got inside our apartment, but why was she now in our kitchen?
She was visibly shaking and had a terrified look of fear on her face. I put my hand on her shoulder and asked her what was going on and if she’s okay. She didn’t speak English well and she was afraid to speak but she then suddenly muttered out a few phrases: “two men”, “wearing jackets”, “holding us hostage”, “with guns.”
I was shocked, two men upstairs wearing jackets with guns? How can this be, and what does this mean, was this a joke or prank? But we had no time to think, only react.
I told her that we can’t help her but the police can. I then asked her if I should call the police, she said yes.
It was at that time I knew something extremely serious was happening upstairs. She would not have asked me to call the police if something extremely serious wasn’t going on. She was involved in operating an illegal brothel, so by calling the police the police would certainly discover what was happening, and she would be in big trouble.
I immediately called 911, I never called 911 before. I was also thinking to myself we could have never thought to have gotten ourselves in this situation if we would have moved immediately after learning about what was going on upstairs, but at the same time I was glad we created a communication and dialogue with the ladies so they could trust us to help them in situations like this where they had no one else.
I tried to stay calm as I told the police dispatcher that the neighbor upstairs escaped her apartment and came to our living room to tell us that two men with guns were holding women hostages in the apartment above us. The dispatcher repeated what I said to confirm, and I told her she was correct.
She asked me how many women were in the apartment. I asked the madame, how many women? She said 9. I told the dispatcher there were 9 women. The dispatcher then asks me with a tone of shock in her voice, “you’re telling me there’s 9 women upstairs being held at gun point”? I said “yes”. She immediately tells me to lock our door and stay inside the apartment and await further orders from the police who were on their way.
It feel surreal, but now all we had to do is wait…
But, no more 45 seconds later, we hear glass shattering and loud thuds from the apartment above us. We all immediately freaked out. This was certainly real, there’s something terrible going on upstairs, and they might be coming for us next.
It was at that moment that I felt panicked and frantic, and immediately called 911 back, we couldn’t wait another second.
It was no longer than one minute later, when we see big bright lights the apartment building. The cavalry comes barging in. The NYPD swat team breaks down the front door and they crashed up the stairs. They sounded like a tornado. It was sheer force, and it was impressive and reassuring to hear. With their megaphone they told us to stay inside and lock our door. We were not permitted to open our door until they instructed us to do so.
We waited for two hours, locked up in our apartment, not knowing what happened upstairs. Now it’s past midnight, and the NYPD has been upstairs for over two hours and we are all still locked inside our apartment.
Then we hear a knock at our door, it’s one of the police sergeants, and he’s asking which one of us called the police. I told him I called.
At that moment, I have the thought that I will I get arrested. Did the Madame tell them the truth about the situation? Will be blamed for calling the police? Will the police think we were part of an illegal brothel? Will the police arrest us for not informing them of what we knew?
There was a large group from the NYPD SWAT team. I remember one who was very upset and emotional, as his adrenaline was extremely high. When his team broke down the door, he was expecting a close-range firefight with hostages, but instead found an empty apartment with group of 9 women who were not helpful nor communicative with the police (luckily, the men escaped shortly before SWAT team broke down the front door, and it’s likely that the sound of the glass shattering we heard earlier was the men escaping the back window). This member of the SWAT team was cursing at everyone because he risked his life for them but they didn’t respect the police by cooperating with them. For two hours, the police were asking the women questions about what happened, but none of the women would talk to them. It was a sad situation both for the women as well as the NYPD.
When the Sergeant from the NYPD finally knocked on our door to question us, we told his everything we knew. In the back of our minds, we thought we might be in trouble for not telling the police what we knew previously.
The Sergeant told us not to worry, and that the brothel actually was under police surveillance for over a year. The police knew of everything that was going on, and was building its case against the madames.
The Sergeant even told us there were undercover officers who visited the brothel a couple months ago to confirm. This at least made us feel better for not telling the police what we knew about the brothel earlier, because at least they knew.
We asked the Sergeant why the police did not shut down the brothel if they knew about it. He said it wasn’t so easy. It’s not easy to arrest someone, as the police have to spend lots of time and resources gathering proper evidence to arrest someone of a crime. Further, if that crime does not result in a serious enough or long enough jail sentence, then it may be a waste of the police’s resources and time.
He told us that the NYPD knows of many illegal brothels throughout NYC, and most are just monitored from a distance to make sure they are not getting out of hand, then for the police to spend lots of time and resources trying to shut down every one. If the police tried to do that, then a substantial amount of more police resources are needed to arrest and convict madames and prostitutes of crimes. Further, if they were go to jail, it’s likely they will only spend a few months there, and then after that they will be back on the street, and open a new, different brothel location (and then the police will have to figure out where that is). Instead of creating these cat-and-mouse situations where people are going in and out of jail and creating new locations for their illegal brothels which the police then needs to spend more resources to discover where they are, the police would rather just monitor them from a distance to make sure they don’t get out of hand.
The Sargent tells us that this situation clearly got out of hand and that all the women were arrested. Further, he tells us that weren’t allowed to go inside the apartment because it’s now a crime scene. The police put their yellow NYPD crime tape on the door and with a huge dead bolt and leave.
As you can imagine, this was one of the wildest Saturday nights I’ve ever had in NYC. But, the story doesn’t end there…
A couple days later, we noticed a foul odor underneath the front door of the apartment upstairs. Then, a few days later, we smelled that foul odor in our common hallway. Then, about a week later the smell started seeping into our apartment.
It was a horrible smell, and we didn’t know what it was. We thought maybe someone died upstairs, and maybe the police didn’t previously find the body. The smell was bad and it was only getting worse.
At that point we had to break into the apartment. The smell needed to stop. We summoned our apartment building Super, and we convinced him to break the lock to allow us to go inside to inspect what the cause was of the foul odor.
When we got inside, we found the smell was coming from the kimchi that was fermenting in the living room. When the police came through, the broke all the jars of kimchi the women would make. The smell was extremely strong and horrible. I actually love kimchi, but not in this form.
Here are some photos we took that day after we got inside.
Here are the shoes of one of the prostitutes left behind.
Here are their baby oils, rubbing alcohol, and other objects.
Here is their red light, body lotion, and more.
We actually discovered in their 3 bedroom apartment, they created 9 individual bedrooms, each with a twin bed and they were separated by bed sheets hanging from the ceiling. These women were very crafty and creative, but took big risks doing so. I do not know what had happened to all of them since the NYPD came in.
A few months later, this was also the apartment that was later destroyed in the fire. To this day, this apartment still exists at 143 East 35th Street, NY, NY 10016. I do not know who lives there today, but wish them the best of luck.
Why You Should HEART on, not HATE on Murray Hill – JON HARARI