As a reporter for the Metro desk who covers the intersection of real estate and politics in New York, I often write about developers, property owners and real estate deals. But never had I come across a hotel guest who became a long-term resident and eventual owner, at least on paper. I knew I had to find out how it all began.

Mr. Barreto’s saga had the makings of an only-in-New-York story. So my editor, Judy Tong, and I decided I should write a short article about the charges. I called a number for Mr. Barreto, but no one answered. While I waited, I kept reporting.

I learned that Mr. Barreto’s entanglement with the New Yorker Hotel began in July 2018, when he booked a one-night stay for $200.57 and refused to check out the next morning. After bellhops removed his things from his room, 2565, he went to New York City Housing Court, arguing that an obscure section of the city’s rent law allowed him to stay at the hotel at a discounted rate on a long-term lease. He was right, a judge said.

Over the next few years, Mr. Barreto, now 49, made moves that went beyond the rights of a permanent guest, twice filing deeds with the city’s Department of Finance claiming that he had taken ownership of the New Yorker Hotel. According to him, the judge’s order allowing him to reside at the hotel extended to owning the entire property.

Before he faced criminal charges, Mr. Barreto had already attracted some media attention — an article published by Curbed in September 2023, for example, was headlined “How to Fake-Own the New Yorker Hotel.” But he had never publicly discussed his pursuit of the hotel. That was until my phone rang just before 4 p.m. on the day of his arraignment.

“Hi Matthew,” a man said, “This is Mickey Barreto. I’m calling you back.”

That phone call, which lasted about 35 minutes, took place just after Mr. Barreto had been released from jail on his own recognizance. He told me that he believed he had done nothing wrong and had been awarded legitimate ownership of the property.

After that call, I rushed to untangle everything he had said.

As I blew past my deadline trying to wrap my head around the twists and turns in his case, Judy and the editor of the Metro desk, Nestor Ramos, decided that the story would be better as a longer narrative. That meant I had more time for reporting and for more interviews with Mr. Barreto. I spent one night at the hotel and visited Mr. Barreto at the apartment on the Upper West Side where he was staying.

In recent years, most of my reporting has covered commercial real estate in New York City and the future of office space after the coronavirus pandemic. The story of Mr. Barreto was a departure from that subject matter, but it did involve a prominent Manhattan property. And from the outset, I recognized that the story included details and characters that readers, especially New York residents, would find fascinating.

There was the New Yorker Hotel itself, which was one of the largest hotels in the world when it opened during the Great Depression. Though its grandeur has since faded, it remains popular today for its central location in Manhattan.

There was also the actual owner of the hotel, the Unification Church, which was founded by Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a self-proclaimed messiah. He bought the hotel in 1976, making it the church’s headquarters. The property was reopened as a hotel in the 1990s, but today most of it remains occupied by followers of Mr. Moon, who died in 2012.

And there was the main character, Mr. Barreto, a California transplant with a knack for wild conspiracy theories. He had obtained a New Yorker’s dream, using an obscure city rent law to secure a long-term lease at a discounted rate. (His rate was even cheaper because he refused to sign a lease or pay another cent.)

The Metro desk published my article last week after more than a month of reporting. But I’m still following the case of Mr. Barreto, who is awaiting trial in State Supreme Court in Manhattan on charges including felony fraud.

What fascinated me was how Mr. Barreto represented himself in housing court, displaying knowledge of the city’s arcane rent laws.

By Matthew Haag