TIMES SQUARE — With two suitcases full of $7 million in gold and cash, Truong Dinh Tran, a mysterious Vietnamese businessman, immigrated to the U.S. in 1975 and used his riches to buy hotels in Buffalo and New York City.
After the real estate shopping spree, Tran moved into his most valuable acquisition — the Hotel Carter in Times Square. He lived there with four mistresses and the more than 15 children he fathered with them.
For the next 30 years, the West 43rd Street building served as home for his unusual family, but to tourists checking in at the front desk, it was known as a no-frills stay at the Crossroads of the World.
The 20-story, 700-room hotel offered budget-conscious travelers bargain rates at less than $100 a night. The trade-off was possible run-ins with bed bugs, mold, questionable carpet stains and even violence.
Over time, its reputation as rundown became so notorious that the travel website TripAdvisor dubbed it the dirtiest hotel in the country in 2009.
When Tran died of complications from a stroke at 80 in March 2012, the hotel went from bad to worse.
Two of his mistresses, who had no formal education in hotel management, took over the operation of the Carter. Meanwhile, the paramours and their children feuded over his estate and hurled accusations of theft at one another.
In November 2012 the family strife and legal squabbles became so tumultuous that the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court named Stanley Parness, a former state judge who helped pave the way for Times Square’s redevelopment, as the temporary administrator of Tran’s estate.
The appointment might be the impetus that helps clean up the Carter — and leads to a possible sale in the future.
“There are a lot of things to consider. We’re exploring different possibilities and quite frankly the effect of estate taxes,” Parness told DNAinfo New York when asked about a potential sale.
Since Tran left no will, Parness has been tasked with sifting through the hotelier’s finances and paying estate taxes while his brood duke it out over money.
Despite its poor shape, the Carter is an extremely valuable asset. The hotel’s size, location and lack of debt put its estimated worth at more than $100 million, according to court papers.
Still, the massive property has been a fiscal headache.
In April 2013 Parness had to persuade Tran’s mistresses to hand over temporarily the hotel’s reins to him.
After that, he and his lawyers at the legal firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP tackled the hotel’s voluminous building-code violations, resolved labor issues, negotiated renovations and looked into the feasibility of a sale, legal filings show.
They found the hotel had been underinsured, corporate contracts were missing and employees were being paid for no-show jobs.
But Parness and the lawyers have started to straighten out the accounts and have installed a new professional management team to run the Carter.
“I have new management in there, and we’re getting the hotel into shape,” said Parness, who as a judge oversaw eminent domain cases in crime-riddled Times Square in the ‘80s and ‘90s. “We're looking to increase the income and take care of whatever physical problems there might be.”
The moves have already instilled some optimism.
“There's been some revenue increase,” he said while cautioning it was still early. “It's hard to translate what's happened since the few months I've been — so to speak — in charge.”
As temporary administrator, Parness is also charged with hunting down other valuable assets that Tran may have.
In a court filing, Stroock lawyers described Tran as “extremely circumspect about his business during his lifetime” and said “[Parness] was confronted with a number of rumors about the existence and location of assets.”
Parness said he hasn’t come across any hidden diamonds or gold. But a secret cache of precious metal isn’t so far fetched.
Before he immigrated to the United States, Tran made a fortune as a shipping magnate in Saigon, transporting U.S. military supplies during the Vietnam War. In spring 1975, when the communists began to overtake South Vietnam, he directed his ships to help evacuate civilians and American military.
Tran once claimed he and his girlfriend, former Miss Vietnam Sang Nguyen, jumped on one of the last boats before the fall. Initially he landed in the Philippines, then Arkansas and finally New York.
The Carter quickly became a cash cow for him, generating millions of dollars a year, in part by acting as a welfare hotel for the city’s poor. But it also attracted violent crime.
A night manager at the Carter hotel was fatally stabbed in the lobby in 1999. That same year Puff Daddy and Jennifer Lopez attended a party at a nightclub in the hotel where a shooting occurred.
In 2007 a Carter maid found the body of a woman whom a convicted sex offender allegedly strangled and hid under a hotel bed.
In 2009, police made arrests for alleged prostitution at Cheetah’s Gentleman’s Club, a strip joint in the building’s ground floor.
All the while, Tran, a self-proclaimed devout Catholic, lived with Nguyen and three other women in 35 connected rooms in the Carter, according to court records.
Parness declined to speculate on Tran’s unusual living situation, his valuable luggage or his life in Vietnam, but was impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit.
“Whatever he did, he came here and bought hotels," Parness said. "That’s not too bad.”