It was near midnight on a Saturday in late August when a thin 25-year-old in a Miami Dolphins cap flexed the platinum chain around his neck, hoisted a two-inch-thick stack of hundred-dollar bills, and giggled at the absurdity of it all. Just two months ago, the young rapper had been eking out an existence at his girlfriend's house off 183rd Street in Miami Gardens, rolling on a line cook's salary. Now, he was lounging in the back of a blue 2014 Jeep Laredo cruising south at 75 miles per hour toward Miami Beach. In the vehicle's front seat, drenched in more bling than Lil Wayne, sat his benefactor: Jimmy Sabatino.
Thomas Troop had just met Sabatino in July, but they'd hung every day since. Sabatino said Troop was going to be the next Puff Daddy. Sabatino said Troop was the man. Stick with me, Sabatino told Troop, and you're going places. Over two solid months, everything Troop wanted to hear — that his rhymes had silky flow, that he wasn't just another punk kid from the projects — Sabatino affirmed. And Troop believed him. Every last damned word.
"We swaggin'," Troop deadpanned into his iPhone's camera, closely scrutinizing the thousands of dollars in his hands. "We crossin' bridges y'all niggas don't even see. Right now, I'm riding with the big homie. He's gonna pull out a couple stacks."
"Wanna see the baby one or the big one?" Sabatino slurred over the din of a blaring hip-hop song, brandishing a tightly wound wad of hundred-dollar bills. "This is the big one right here." Sabatino, wearing a diamond-encrusted pinkie ring and watch, began to flip through the hundreds like a card dealer. "It's all hundreds!" he erupted in a Brooklyn accent. "It's all hundreds! No frontin' over here. It's all hundreds! We gettin' money. This is Troop. And you already know who the fuck I am."
When the men arrived at the Hilton Bentley in South Beach, sinking into the splendor of Sabatino's suite overlooking the ocean, Troop had no reason to suspect anything was amiss. Sure, Sabatino wasn't much to look at: He was only five-foot-six, weighed 360 pounds, and couldn't do much without wheezing. But he presented himself as a major player in the music industry. He said he'd launched the meteoric careers of Puff Daddy, Mark Wahlberg, the Notorious B.I.G., and Method Man. And now he said he wanted to do the same for Troop.
Later, a pair of black-haired escorts from Clearwater arrived, stripped to their thongs, and gyrated against the men. Troop looked at Sabatino. He was popping bottle after bottle of Cristal Champagne, clutching one in each hand. Man, Troop thought, Sabatino's living large. All of this has to be real.
But of course, it wasn't. For 36-year-old Jimmy Sabatino, who police say conned his way into the hotel by masquerading as a Sony executive, the opulence of the night was just the latest scam in a lifetime teeming with them. He's fond of saying that he made his first million by the time he was 16, and that isn't far from the truth. What Tom Ford is to high fashion or Jonathan Franzen is to story craft, Jimmy Sabatino is to conning. His scams bear an artist's touch.
At age 18, he pocketed $235,800 selling stolen Super Bowl tickets. Within years, he was also scamming some of the toniest hotels from Miami to New York of hundreds of thousands' worth of suites and fine dining. Seven years later, while working the phones in federal prison, he bamboozled more than $1 million worth of cell phones out of Nextel. Then, in 2008, he brought the Los Angeles Times to its knees when he fed the paper fake FBI documents — which it printed — linking him to a 1994 assassination attempt on Tupac Shakur.
The most remarkable aspect of Sabatino's scams, however, isn't the profit. It's his methodology. With no proof beyond his word, Sabatino asks for incredible things — and gets them. "The easiest scam to pull off," Sabatino recently told New Times in his first public interview to date, "is tell someone something they already wanted to believe."
No one wants to believe his cons more than Jimmy Sabatino. He desperately — obsessively — wants to be a big shot. It's all he thinks about. All he talks about. All he cares about. The lights of fame, the sheen of success, the millions. He'd do anything for that life.
But today, that dream is further away than at any time in Sabatino's criminal career. In late September, only four months out of prison, he was arrested on charges of conning more hotels. That part doesn't bother him, he says. What does, however, is the cops' final allegation. Miami Beach Police say he had sex with a 17-year-old girl and kept pictures of her nude on his phone — a crime in Florida.