The Midtown Inn.
For many residents on the city’s Southeast side, the ramshackle rooming house held a terror that would rival that of the Bates Motel, featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 tale of terror, “Phycho.”
The inn was a target of controversy in 2009 when the New York State Division of Parole began placing level 2 and level 3 sex offenders there after their release from prison. At one point, sexual predators were housed in the joint, which is located in an otherwise quiet residential neighborhood, 1,500 feet of the city’s Niagara Street Elementary School and less than 200 feet from a church operated day care center.
Citizen complaints led to the involvement of the Niagara Falls Reporter.
The place was the former site of the Zodiac Lounge, the premier blue collar Polish saloon in a neighborhood filled with blue collar Polish saloons. They’d cash your paycheck, serve up a scrumptious fish fry on Friday nights, and everybody had a good time.
As recently as 2002, the Reporter covered a party there at which more than 200 people made it to the Zodiac Lounge on Niagara Street for a community tribute to community activists and tavern owners Bob and Mary Kay Wilson.
But then something happened at the Zodiac. An ownership change, combined with a desire by the state Parole Board to house registered sex offenders in the low rent city, turned what had previously been a bar downstairs, apartments upstairs arrangement into a subdivision of sorts, where sexual predators could have their way for whatever the state gave them for rent money.
The apartments were parsed, to supply sleeping quarters of a condition it would be difficult to find outside of a Third World country.
And the state contributed, sending in the most vile and heinous predaors it could muster to fill those beds. At one point in 2010, more than two dozen sick and depraved convicted sexual offenders were living at the Midtown.
Neighborhood residents knew them by name, and they could be seen lurking in the candy section at the old Wilson Farms store across the road from Niagara Street Elementary School when classes let out.
It turned out that legislation sponsored by former state Assemblywoman Francine Del Monte had turned Niagara Falls into a mecca for paroled sex offenders. Under the Del Monte sponsored “civil confinement law,” the state’s most dangerous predators were released back into society, where they collected welfare and Medicaid benefits, largely free to come and go as they pleased.
Following a highly publicized series of pickets that took place following the Reporter expose, Del Monte and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster agreed to appear at a public meeting on the topic held at the Niagara Street School.
The protests began after James A. McKinney, 51, a North Tonawanda native rated as having a “mental abnormality” that makes him likely to re-offend, ended up in the Midtown Inn after a trial under Del Monte’s civil confinement law.
State Supreme Court Justice Richard Kloch found McKinney, who was convicted of having sex with four girls under age 14, to have the required mental abnormality, based on courtroom testimony from psychologists.
But he didn’t want to commit McKinney to an institution, so he asked the Division for Parole and the state attorney general’s office to find a place to put him while on Strict and Intensive Supervision and Treatment, a harsher-than-normal parole program.
McKinney was sent to his mother’s house in North Tonawanda, but a community protest led by former North Tonawanda mayor Lawrence V. Soos and residents of Pioneer Drive, where McKinney’s mother lived, caught the judge’s ear.
Kloch, who also lived in North Tonawanda, listened and decided to assign McKinney to a halfway house in Buffalo often used by parolees. But the office of former attorney general Andrew Cuomo protested that all the arrangements for monitoring McKinney had been made with Niagara County agencies.
So McKinney ended up at the Midtown.
Dyster, Del Monte and others charged with propping up the moribund city’s sagging population numbers were happy to have him. To them, McKinney represented the future of Niagara Falls – a ward of the state with no visible means of support who could be trotted out without regard for his heinous criminal history.
“[The Midtown Inn] houses the largest concentration of sexual predators in Niagara County, and is the chief reason that Niagara Falls has the highest concentration of sexual offenders in New York State,” Sharon Szwedo, a Niagara Street Business Association board member and one of the picket leaders, said at the time. “Niagara Street is our poorest district. “With 75 percent of our children walking to and from school at hours when these offenders are allowed to be on the streets.”
As is so often the case in Niagara Falls, pleas by Swedo and other longtime neighborhood residents were ignored by officials hell bent on advancing the cause of bureaucracy.
“They’ve got to live somewhere,” Dyster said of McKinney and the other convicted deviants.
The controversy continued until the Midtown was condemned after December 2012 fire. According to police, the fire was started after a “resident set his bed sheets on fire.”
Although the building’s owners refurbished the flea bag, most of the registered sex offenders were disbursed. The Midtown served as the headquarters for the FBI, who were then engaged in the surveillance of John Gross, whose plumbing shop was located across Niagara Street. Agents could often be seen on the roof, snapping pictures.
Last week, Niagara Falls Police Detectives arrested a local man and charged him with starting the fire at the Midtown on January 1 at 7:15 pm
Police arrested Jerome Wingfield, a 32 year old man who lives in the 1400 block of Main Street in Niagara Falls, and Wilber T. Haynes, 70, who lived at the Midtown.
Both men were charged with arson, burglary and reckless endangerment. They were arraignedMonday in city court, where Haynes was given a $100,000 bone and Wingfield was ordered held without bail.
The fire caused extensive damage to the building and forced some 20 residents to flee the building for their safety, leaving several people injured.
Only one registered sexual offender was left homeless.
Will the building that’s become a neighborhood nuisance finally be torn down? Or will government officials again allow for its refurbishment and grand reopening as a spot where lowlife scum can meet and greet?
More will be revealed, as they say.