A disbarred attorney pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing from government funds, acknowledging he pocketed more than $900,000 owed to a former NYPD cop from Kings Park sickened at Ground Zero.
Gustavo L. Vila, of Yorktown Heights in Westchester, admitted in U.S. District Court in White Plains that he stole about 90% of the $1,032,000 payout from the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund that authorities said was owed to John Ferreyra.
"I knew it was a crime. I knew it was illegal. I have no excuse for it," Vila said in court.
His sentencing is scheduled for Feb. 5 where he could face up to 10 years in prison, authorities said.
Vila’s White Plains-based attorney, Susanne Brody, could not be reached for comment after the hearing.
Ferreyra, 59, and his wife, Lisa McDermott Ferreyra, 57, told Newsday in an interview at their Kings Park home earlier Thursday that Vila showed little remorse for stealing from them.
Prosecutors have said Vila was Ferreyra’s attorney for seven years beginning in 2012.
Ferreyra, a 20-year-veteran of the NYPD, was forced to retire following a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after working traffic detail at Ground Zero after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Outside of feeling betrayed and duped, it’s also embarrassing," an emotion-laden Ferreyra said. "It was just the idea that he stole it from us. Someone that I considered a friend. I broke bread with him. He sat with us. I went to a wedding that he was a best man at."
The 9/11 fund was created in 2011 with coffers of more than $7 billion, but years later, the Congressional Budget Office warned it was likely to need $10.2 billion to operate for another decade. In July 2019, President Donald Trump signed a law restoring the fund through 2092. The law ensured that hundreds of first responders, construction workers and others who lived or worked in the vicinity of the attack sites have access to medical coverage after being exposed to toxins.
Authorities arrested Vila Sept. 3 and unsealed a criminal complaint against him that detailed how his sole payment to a longtime client, referred to as victim 1, was $103,062 in 2016. Vila then pocketed the rest of the payments, which Ferreyra learned in February.
Ferreyra was also unaware Vila had been disbarred in 2015. According to court records, Vila's disbarment followed his conviction of felony third-degree grand larceny. Ferreyra and his lawyer, Manhattan-based Michael Barasch, said the case that led to Vila’s disbarment was unrelated to his theft from the 9/11 fund.
During a news conference Thursday before the hearing, Barasch said Vila told Ferreyra after the $100,000 payment: "You’re lucky to be getting this. You won’t get anymore."
Barasch said he has secured a $400,000 payment for Ferreyra from the New York Lawyers Fund, which he added, was set up to protect victims from "unscrupulous lawyers."
Ferreyra also said Thursday his illness caused him to drop from 225 pounds to 143 pounds. His life was saved after a stem-cell transplant. He said he applied for compensation from the 9/11 fund while hospitalized on his deathbed.
Still, Ferreyra said, he holds no ill will toward Vila, but hopes while in jail, he reflects on what led him there and becomes a better person.
Ferreyra said the fact that he is alive makes it easier to maintain perspective.
"I’m happy to be standing here. I thank God every day that I’m standing here," Ferreyra said.