UPPER WEST SIDE — Under golden arches, as the smell of Big Macs wafted through the air, Lee Power signed away more than $100 million to a man with two identities whom everyone called The General.
Power, a toothless, disheveled widow who was often mistaken for a bag lady despite her enormous wealth, had known The General — or Alben Sagan, his legal name — for less than two years. But in that short time, he had become her ever-present companion.
The two first met in late 2008 when Sagan mysteriously arrived at Power’s door looking for an apartment in one of the half-dozen residential buildings she owned on the Upper West Side.
Soon he was being paid to drive her around. Then he started overseeing the maintenance of her properties. A year later, he was living rent free in a one-bedroom unit in one of her buildings located steps from Central Park.
And now Power sat with three of Sagan’s friends in her favorite booth in the McDonald’s at 71st Street and Broadway at 10:30 p.m. on June 18, 2010.
She signed a will that left all but a small sliver of her riches to Sagan. She also signed a document that gave him power of attorney over her.
Sagan’s friends signed as witnesses. As the ink dried, Sagan appeared, and they all congratulated him.
Over the next few years, Sagan would become the president of her real estate companies, Powers Associates and 15 West Realty LLC, negotiating multi-million-dollar sales of her properties.
Meanwhile, Power would spend the last year of her life in and out of hospitals and finally in a nursing home until she died at 82 on Jan. 7, 2014.
After her death, Power’s family was shocked to learn that a man they barely knew had been left 90 percent of her fortune.
Power had no children, but she had come from a large family scattered overseas, and only one niece was named a beneficiary in the will.
Christine Corney, Power’s older sister who lived in England, suspected foul play and wrote a letter to the Manhattan Surrogate’s Court objecting to the will. She stated that her sister never once mentioned Sagan’s name in their many phone conversations.
“As sisters we were very close and I knew first hand that she didn’t trust men, and never has!” Corney wrote. “It seems that my sister’s greatest fear was realised in the last few years of her life.”
WHO IS ALBEN SAGAN?
Alben Sagan, 58, has been Alben Sagan for less than a decade.
Before Sagan was Sagan, he was a security guard and ex-military officer from Eastern Europe who had given testimony and intelligence on scores of organized crime figures, helping to put them in prison. In return for his service, and to protect him from retaliation, he was handed a new life in the U.S. witness protection program and relocated to Wisconsin.
Federal agents gave him the name in 2007. They also created vital information for Sagan, like a birthday, birthplace and Social Security number. And they issued Sagan a driver’s license, a U.S. passport and a global entry card.
The witness protection program, run by the U.S. Marshals Service, provides endangered witnesses and their immediate family members new identities and financial assistance for housing, basic living expenses and medical care.
The only caveat is that witnesses must leave their pasts behind, handing over their cellphones and never speaking to loved ones again.
On its website, the U.S. Marshals Service says it has protected, relocated and given new identities to more than 8,600 witnesses and 9,900 of their family members. They say no witness who has followed its rules has been harmed or killed.
But, as Sagan says, witnesses have a hard time following the rules.
They get antsy living anonymously in a Podunk part of America. They miss their old friends. And, in Sagan’s case, they can’t bear being away from their family.
“Federal witness protection program is worse than any prison or death row,” Sagan said.
He broke the rules for love.
He entered the witness protection program by himself on Aug. 7, 2007. Despite his pleas to come with him, his wife and four children chose not to go.
Unable to handle the separation, he voluntarily left the program on July 30, 2008, returning to his family in New York City. He decided he’d rather live in danger, under the threat that a vengeful criminal might come looking for him, than endure the bitter winters along Lake Michigan alone.
As a precaution, when he returned, Sagan continued to use his new identity.
And while he reconnected with old friends, he tried to keep his past a secret from new associates — that is until he was set to inherit $100 million.
WILL TO POWER
Sagan’s past life has surfaced in a fierce legal battle waged in Manhattan Surrogate’s Court over the validity of Power’s will.
Lawyers for a one of Power’s nieces accuse Sagan of preying on an extremely rich woman suffering from dementia in order to gain control of her real estate portfolio, which is worth, they estimate, somewhere between $80 and $120 million. They also point to emails that claim she lived in fear of him.
“Unfortunately, the facts of this case are not so uncommon. You have someone who was elderly, alone and vulnerable,” said Kimberly Schechter, the attorney who represents Power’s niece Janet Braker in the case over the validity of the will. Braker’s mother, Christine Corney, died shortly after writing the letter objecting to the will.
Sagan said Power was of sound mind when she wrote her will and remained so for years after. Several tenants also said that Sagan acted as a lifeline to a woman who, without his care, would have died years earlier.
As part of the case, Schechter deposed his daughter and his friends who had witnessed the will signing.
The friends, who had known him since the 1990s, referred to him as The General in their depositions because they said he told them he had been an army officer with a stellar record in his homeland before he fled his country for the United States.
But public records showed that Alben Sagan was born in Boston.
Meanwhile, when Sagan’s daughter was deposed, she refused to say whether her dad had ever gone by another name.
Eventually, Sagan’s lawyer Mark Lebow, dropped a bombshell: Sagan had been a federal witness.
“Alben Sagan rendered unprecedented and extraordinary service to the United States, for which he was placed by a grateful United States government into the federal witness protection program,” Lebow said in a June 3, 2015, filing.
Sagan and Lebow provided affidavits, a letter from the Department of Justice, and identification cards and reference letters for Sagan and his previous name.
Lebow said that his client’s previous identity needed to be kept a secret so as not to endanger him.
Schechter and her co-counsels, Albert Messina and Jules Haas, scoffed at that.
They said Sagan had already created a roadmap for any enemies to track him down by openly associating with old friends and with his children.
The lawyers also said Sagan’s dual identities and past are relevant to the case, particularly in establishing his character.
During a June 5, 2015, Surrogate’s Court hearing, Haas even questioned whether Sagan’s service to the U.S. government was truly virtuous. He alluded to Martin Scorcese’s mob classic “Goodfellas,” noting how Ray Liotta’s character, Henry Hill, saved his own skin by ratting on his fellow wise guys.
“American heroes are not in the witness protection program,” Haas told the judge.
Judge Rita Mella has since placed the proceedings and documents connected to Sagan’s past under seal.
Both Schechter and Lebow declined to answer questions about Sagan’s time in the witness protection program.
However, DNAinfo New York obtained affidavits, transcripts of depositions and other legal documents — many of which were under seal — that detail The General’s two lives.
Sagan also spoke to DNAinfo about his past. And federal sources have confirmed the main elements of his story — that he did valorous work for the U.S. government and that he wasn’t a bad guy who snitched on gangsters to avoid prison.
DNAinfo is not revealing Sagan’s former name and is omitting specific details about his life, including his birth country and the mobsters he took down, to help protect him and his family.
'WHY DON'T I FINISH THIS S--T?'
Sagan has a smile looks both menacing and benign.
His eyes constantly scan his surroundings for any possible assailant. He has 11 phones and carries at least five on him at all times because, he said, it prevents him from being traced to a location.
At the same time, he is unafraid to speak in public about his past, even as strangers walk by within earshot.
He remembers one night when he first entered witness protection.
He had been whisked to the Washington, D.C., area, and was waiting for federal agents to process his new identity.
After eating dinner alone at a Cheesecake Factory in Virginia, he returned to his hotel room when the reality of his situation hit him.
“Why don’t I put a few sheets together and commit suicide. Why don’t I finish this s***?” he recalled thinking.
It was his lowest point since he fled to the United States in 1992.
He had arrived in New York after deserting his army in his homeland. He said he abandoned his post as a colonel because he refused to take part in military atrocities.
Eventually, the United States granted him asylum and he moved with his family to Westchester, taking jobs as a livery driver and a security guard in the city.
For a time, he worked at a private investigation agency in Queens.
His work won the respect of Donald V. North, the FBI agent who ran the bureau’s organized-crime unit in New York in the 1990s.
North, who is credited with helping to convict John Gotti and other crime bosses, wrote a glowing reference letter for Sagan on June 4, 1997. The letter was included in the Surrogate’s Court case.
North said at the time he had gotten to know Sagan socially because he was a friend of his boss at the private investigation firm.
“I have found him to be of the highest integrity and very hard working,” North wrote. “I have never heard anything which would make me question his character, integrity or moral standards.”
Sagan, who wears a U.S. special agent pin on the lapel of his blazer and a private investigator badge holstered to his belt, is cagey about how he became a government informant. He said federal agents approached him after he wrote a letter to President Bill Clinton’s administration.
His work was for the most part on top of his day jobs. But at times, he said, he had to go undercover, leaving his family for weeks at a time.
He decided to enter the witness protection after a big criminal case went to trial in 2006 and federal agents thought it was too risky for him to remain in the open. He wanted his wife and children to come with him, but they didn’t want to give up their lives in New York.
Sagan was given his new identity after he flew from Washington to Wisconsin.
The U.S. Marshals allowed him to pick from a list of first names and surnames.
Sagan said they suggested Sagan after Carl Sagan because he was a man of great intellect. They also told him Alben had been the first name of Alben W. Barkley, the vice president under President Harry S. Truman who was known for being a great storyteller.
Sagan lived in an extended stay hotel in Wisconsin. He had no friends, and he couldn’t call his family — only a switchboard connected to U.S. Marshals.
The government offered him money to start a business like a restaurant or an auto dealership, but he declined, he said. They gave him a car, but all he used it for was to go back and forth to the gym.
He had hoped that his family would reconsider and join him. He even thought the idea of being near Lake Michigan might entice his wife.
His family never came.
He decided to exit the program on July 30, 2008. Marshals tried to talk him out of it, but he stood firm and signed papers saying he was finished. Marshals then escorted him back to New York where he arrived in time for his son’s 16th birthday party.
Upon his return, Sagan continued to be Alben Sagan. He even had Wisconsin license plates on his car.
But he took precautions. He said there were certain “red zones” in the city that were too dangerous to live, but he decided Manhattan was safe.
Also, his family didn't welcome him home with open arms.
His wife, who was his childhood sweetheart, questioned how he could abandon them. The two eventually separated.
However, Sagan said the separation was a ruse to keep his wife safe.
By late 2008, Sagan was looking for his own apartment when he bumped into an old friend.
EVERY ASPECT OF HER LIFE
Lee Power had recently fired Sagan's friend as a doorman. But the friend told Sagan that she had vacant apartments.
Sagan visited Power at her home in a landmarked 41-unit building she owned on the Upper West Side. He told her he had managed properties in Wisconsin and could help her fix up rundown units.
Tenants were perplexed when a man who referred to himself as The General started taking control of the day-to-day operations of their building. To them, he seemed to have appeared out of nowhere, but they welcomed the repairs.
The building had been deteriorating for years.
The boiler was broken. Tenants would have no hot water for weeks at a time. There were complaints about the elevators, loose bricks on the facade and waterlogged ceilings.
Lee Power had been running her husband’s real estate company, Powers Associates, since his death in 1994.
Her husband, Michael Power, was an Irish immigrant who built a real estate empire by snatching up one Manhattan residential building at a time since 1942.
Lee Power was his second wife. She was born in London and grew up during World War II, surviving the Blitz.
Her maiden name was Ivy Louise Rose. But she changed it to Lee Power after Michael’s death because she felt vulnerable, according to her sister’s letter.
She also became a homebody. Tenants said the last time they remembered her actually traveling was when she accompanied her husband's body back to Ireland for burial.
With Sagan, she now had someone to oversee repairs and act as a chauffeur. He would drive her around for errands and to doctor appointments. He would also take her to McDonald’s and to Queens for meals.
Four tenants who spoke to DNAinfo credited Sagan with fixing her buildings and keeping her alive.
“You don’t have to worry about not having a hot shower,” one tenant said. “I think the building has been dramatically improved.”
The lawyers for Power’s niece who is challenging the will said his actions weren’t so innocent. They said in court papers that he “insinuated himself into every aspect” of Power's life.
They even contend that Sagan and Power may have had a romantic relationship.
Sagan said they were strictly platonic. He worked for her for 15 hours a day and would spend many nights talking to her over coffee.
'SHE IS SCARED'
Emails and letters included as exhibits in the court case paint a darker portrait of the relationship.
In a June 4, 2009, email, tenant Beatrice Leeds wrote to Denise Ozturk, Power’s niece who lived in Australia, to say that Power confided to her and another tenant that she was afraid of Sagan but feared he would hurt her if she went to police. Leeds wrote that Power said Sagan yells at her and wants to take her buildings.
“Bottom line, she is scared,” Leeds wrote. She also suggested hiring an off-duty police officer to protect Power.
In response, Ozturk acknowledged that her aunt seemed to fear Sagan. She also wrote about the possibility of getting Power to go to the police, but then concluded that she would never be able to persuade her aunt.
Leeds told DNAinfo that she did not remember writing the email.
In the months leading up to her signing a will, Power and Sagan seemed like they were on a repeat cycle of being fed up with one another and then reconciling.
On May 6, 2010, Power’s longtime attorney, John Hyland, wrote her a letter to confirm an earlier conversation in which she said she wanted to fire Sagan, but then decided not to.
A month later Power signed her will in the McDonald’s, handing Sagan 90 percent of her fortune. Ozturk received the other 10 percent.
Lawyers for Janet Braker, the niece challenging the will, have called the document defective. For one, the will left a bequest of $50,000 to Power's sister, Janet Lucas. However, Power never had a sister named Janet Lucas.
Also, one of the witnesses to the will was Sagan's friend who had initially told him about Power’s apartment buildings. Another witness was Sagan’s friend whom he had previously owed $20,000, court records show.
Braker's lawyers filed a petition Aug. 11 to have Sagan removed as executor, accusing him of dishonesty, improvidence and self-dealing.
The lawyers pointed to the sale of one of Power’s building in 2013 immediately after Sagan appointed himself president of Powers Associates.
Sagan accepted a price of $11.1 million despite a higher offer of $12 million. He took the lower offer because he was able to get a $222,000 commission despite not having a real estate broker license, the court filing says.
Sagan denies getting any commission.
He’s also disagrees with how much Braker’s lawyers estimate Power’s properties are worth. He values them at $65 million — not the $80 million to $120 million figure.
'NOBODY CARED ABOUT HER'
Several tenants supported Sagan’s account and said Power wouldn’t have signed anything she didn’t want to.
When Power died, he reached out to Power's niece Ozturk to get her other relatives’ contact information to notify them. But he said none of them came to Power’s funeral.
He said, other than Ozturk, none of the family did anything for her in the last years of her life.
“My relatives, nobody cared about her,” she said. “They didn’t ring her. They didn’t know who she was.”
Ozturk said she first met Sagan when she visited her aunt in 2009. Initially, she said, she was skeptical of him and his motives, but grew to trust him.
“Without Alben, I don’t think she would have survived,” Ozturk said. “I am saying that from my heart.”