How The Empire State Building Was Stolen In 2008

The term "muckraking" coined by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 refers to investigative journalism techniques used by clever reporters to expose wrongdoing in public systems, according to Journalism in Action. One of the most famous examples of muckraking involves Upton Sinclair going undercover to work in Chicago meatpacking plants in order to expose the dirty conditions immigrant workers faced. He later published what he unveiled about the unsanitary production practices in his famous 1906 novel "The Jungle" (via Brookings).

In what has been called one of the biggest heists in American history, the New York Daily News pulled off a huge muckraking investigation in 2008 to expose a loophole in the city's system that didn't require clerks to verify information on deeds upon submission, potentially leading to fraud or other financial crimes (via The Independent). For example, the New York Daily News reported cases in which relatives of property owners, or people claiming to be long dead property owners, managed to obtain fraudulent deeds and take out hundreds of thousands of dollars in mortgages before pulling out and disappearing from the system.

A $2 billion heist

In 2008, the New York Daily News filed bogus paperwork to the city clerk's office requesting to transfer the Empire State Building's deed into their hands. The paperwork had obvious red flags, but somehow none of the details tipped off the clerk who received them. The name on the deed was "Nelots Properties LLC" ("Nelots" is "stolen" spelled backward); the witness was listed as original "King Kong" star Fay Wray; and the notary on the documents was infamous bank robber, Willie Sutton, according to the paper.

Regardless, the reporters successfully made their way past the clerk's office within 90 minutes. In an hour-and-a-half, the New York Daily News had successfully "stolen" the $2 billion Empire State Building. However, within 24 hours, the newspaper editors confessed to their fraudulent documents and returned the 102-story skyscraper to its original owners. Instead of walking away from the scandal with the deed to one of the most famous buildings in American history in their back pocket, they walked away with a muckraking exposé to go down in history.