Talk with Sabatino, however, and he'll mention none of this. "Listen," he told New Times one afternoon on the phone, "I know where you're going with this. You want me to say that I've done everything for attention or something. But that's not how it was. I had a very happy childhood. I never had any problems with friends. I was always one of the most popular kids in my schools."
But his favorite cousin, 24-year-old Joyce Anne Femia, recalls a story that casts some doubt on that assertion. "Jimmy would get picked on by kids when he was really young in high school," she says. "So one day, to make it stop, he conned somebody into giving him a hundred beepers and then went around the whole neighborhood giving them to all the kids."
The anecdote would seem apocryphal if this weren't Jimmy Sabatino. While his once model-worthy looks atrophied, Sabatino developed an extraordinary grace with people. He had an irresistible cockiness that made every lie believable. "You know how the blind can hear better?" asks best friend Stanley Belot. "Sabatino doesn't look so good, but he sure can talk." In those years, Sabatino became addicted to hip-hop and would spend hours watching TV, just for the credits. Then, at a frantic clip, he'd fill notebooks with the names of producers and actors. "He soon realized that by calling restaurants, hotels, theaters, and other businesses [and masquerading as these people], he could go anywhere he desired," his father recalled.
It's impossible to calculate the number of scams Sabatino orchestrated between the ages of 16 and 22 using that methodology. Posturing as the nephew of Sony Music President Tommy Mottola, he defrauded Mac Warehouse of $60,000 in laptop computers, then took New York's Waldorf-Astoria for $16,000 in rooms and services and later scored $20,000 more at Marriott Marquis. In L.A., he bamboozled the Ritz-Carlton for $16,000.
Other hotel cons were substantially more brazen, if not outright insane.
Let's say Sabatino wanted to stay at a Marriott hotel. First he'd pen a note to a major company like Disney. Then, when Disney responded, he'd take its official letterhead and fax it to the hotel, announcing the imminent arrival of Disney executive James Sabatino. Naturally, the note would read, Disney was to cover all expenses.
Sometime in the early 1990s, he moved his operation down to Ocean Ridge, a community hugging the Atlantic in Palm Beach County, to live with his felonious uncle, Richard Sabatino, who pleaded guilty in 1995 to receiving $250,000 worth of stolen Italian shoes. (Richard Sabatino declined comment: "Not my style.") Once ensconced in Florida, Sabatino again posed as Mottola's nephew and scored some serious one-on-one time with Julio Iglesias at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in 1994. The singer expressed great dissatisfaction at his lack of popularity among the nation's youth.
With every score, every scintillating brush with fame, the boy was emboldened. In 1995, South Florida reporters salivated when he manipulated FedEx into giving him 262 Super Bowl tickets by claiming to be Miami Dolphins President Eddie Jones. "The next morning, there were 50 classified ads in USA Today for ticket brokers, so I sold them for $1,000 a pop," says Sabatino today, contemplating the score for two nanoseconds. "Yeah, that was a big one."
So big it caught up to him. That year in December, he pleaded guilty in Broward County Circuit Court to three counts of dealing in stolen property. "It was the only thing they could get me on," he says. "They'd willingly given me the tickets."
His father wasn't so cavalier about his son's growing notoriety. "He's a disturbed young man who needed attention like a drug," the now-72-year-old Fort Lauderdale man wrote in his letter. "He was consistently being positively reinforced for his negative behavior."
Indeed, the day of his release two years later, Sabatino again suckered the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square for $55,000 in services, then bolted to London, where he did the same thing at the Four Seasons.
That time, however, police sniffed him out. So in a wild gambit to force extradition back to the United States, the 21-year-old dialed the White House, then the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse, and cryptically threatened to kill prosecutors, a judge, and President Bill Clinton because, he jokes, "I couldn't stand the food in the London prisons — just fish and chips." The authorities weren't laughing.