Ruthless investor preyed on the vulnerable — but just got destroyed in court by a homeless math wiz
A brilliant but troubled graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has finally won his case against a man with a reputation as a ruthless, predatory investor.
According to the Boston Globe, 75-year-old John Henry Wenk won his suit against controversial investor capitalist Brian R. Burke, who bought Wenk’s house in 1999, but never paid him for it.
In 1997, Burke agreed to buy Wenk’s Brighton home, made a $10,000 payment, then declined to pay any further. Wenk “barely put up a fight,” according to the Globe, but has since drifted from homeless shelter to homeless shelter.
Last week, two pro bono attorneys took up Wenk’s case in Suffolk Superior Court and prevailed. Judge Mary Ames ruled that Burke had deceived Wenk. The verdict puts Wenk in line for a potential payout of $1 million.
“The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,” said Wenk in an e-mail to the Globe.
His attorney David Kelston said, “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.”
Burke is facing 10 lawsuits by plaintiffs who allege that the businessman cheated them in dealings large and small. The state’s tax board says that Burke has only paid taxes twice in the last 10 years.
Ames found that Burke and his attorney willfully deceived Wenk and failed to notify him when they filed a lawsuit that would allow Burke to skip out on the remaining $390,000 he owed Wenk.
“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,” Ames wrote in her decision.
Burke told the Globe via telephone that he intends to dispute the ruling and go to trial if necessary.
“The weight of the evidence is in our favor,” said Burke. “That was something that happened 16 years ago. It’s ancient history. If a trial is necessary, there will be a trial.”
Wenk’s suit sprang out of a separate suit in which Burke allegedly used phony business documents in an attempt to bilk wealthy property owner Morris Stern out of a pair of $4.5 million buildings. That case brought other lawsuits against Burke to light, including one in which a co-investor was suing Burke in a dispute related to the sale of Wenk’s house.
The Globe examined the record and attempted to track down Wenk, looking in multiple homeless shelters before finally finding him through a registry of MIT graduates.
Wenk has a master’s degree from MIT in mathematics, but said that he was suffering from emotional problems at the time of the sale in 1997. The home had been heavily damaged in a fire. Wenk was living there without water or electricity, dividing his time between the wrecked home and a shelter for the homeless.
The Globe said, “When city inspectors ordered him to repair or sell it, he made a deal with Burke that called for Burke to pay $10,000 up front and to pay off the remaining $391,000 over 15 years. With interest, Burke should have paid Wenk $3,587 a month — with an additional payment of $196,000 at the end of the 15 years. There were also substantial penalties for late payment.
Burke made the down payment of $10,000, then paid nothing more.
“I was really out of it at the time,” said Wenk. Burke saw this and took advantage of it. “He knows how to work the system. He gets away with an awful lot.”
Burke’s team argued that they were unable to locate Wenk, that he frequently lived “off the grid” and was unreliable.
Wenk moved into senior housing in 2003 and since then has been cooperating fully with efforts to restore his stolen funds. He showed up to every court session and deposition in spite of his deteriorating health.
Joined by other plaintiffs including Burke’s sister — who says she was financially ruined in a bad business deal with the tycoon — in building a case against Burke, who has allegedly made his fortune by taking advantage of the vulnerable and disenfranchised.
Judge Ames ruled that Burke and Kerr made only desultory attempts to find Wenk, sending legal papers to homeless shelters instead of contacting Wenk’s attorney of record. She also struck down Burke’s objections that Wenk waited too long before taking up the matter in court.
“The court concludes the motion was brought within a reasonable time,” she wrote.
Wenk’s property is currently valued by the city of Boston at approximately $1.34 million. Wenk’s attorneys say they plan on foreclosing on the property, which has since been passed along to one of Burke’s sons. Because Burke did not pay the mortgage, Wenk can foreclose on the property, becoming the owner. He can then resell the property for its current value.
“He won everything. He’s 100 percent vindicated,” said Wenk’s attorney Peter Fenn. “Now we just have to collect.”