Longform

Hip-Hop Poseur Jimmy Sabatino Can't Stop Scamming — Even From Prison

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But his worst (and strangest) was still ahead — a con that would humiliate one of the nation's most iconic newspapers and abruptly inject Sabatino into hip-hop's greatest drama: the bicoastal music-industry war between Puff Daddy and Tupac Shakur.

In October 2007, Sabatino, who's long posited close ties to Bad Boy Records, sued Sean Combs for an astonishing $20 million in Miami federal court. He claimed that in December 1994, he'd flown Combs' protégé, the Notorious B.I.G., to Miami, where he laid down 17 minutes and 54 seconds of freestyle rapping at South Beach Studios.

Friend Stanley Belot says he recalls meeting Sabatino and Biggie that night. "Sabatino lies all the time, but some of it's true. He did know Biggie. That night, we went back to [Biggie's] suite, and Biggie was smoking blunts." Belot does not, however, remember any freestyle sessions.

In his lawsuit — which he filed acting as his own attorney and which was later dismissed — Sabatino said that he sold the recordings to Combs for an agreed $200,000 but that Combs never ponied up. Then, suddenly, Sabatino entered into evidence what he claimed were FBI reports proving his business ties to Combs and the Notorious B.I.G. At five pages, the documents described Sabatino as a powerful, feared player in hip-hop. Among other claims, they alleged Sabatino was present on November 30, 1994, when Tupac Shakur was shot — but not killed — at a New York recording studio. The records say Sabatino called Tupac "a piece of shit."

After he filed the purported FBI documents, Sabatino picked up a phone. He called veteran Los Angeles Times reporter Chuck Phillips. The Pulitzer Prize winner had been researching Tupac's 1994 shooting, which ignited a bicoastal rap war, eventually culminating in unknown assailants gunning down Tupac in Las Vegas in 1996. Phillips was working on the definitive account of the saga.

Over the phone, Sabatino informed him of the FBI records, Phillips later explained in the Village Voice. The reporter was ecstatic. Sabatino's documents corroborated much of his independent research, which had hinged on anonymous interviews with one of Tupac's New York assailants, Dexter Isaac. "I did not know Sabatino, but soon came to trust the inmate," Phillips wrote.

He shouldn't have. The L.A. Times leaned heavily on Sabatino's documents in its explosive 2008 account of the rap war. Phillips fingered Sean Combs' pal James Rosemond, a felon, as having orchestrated the feud with Tupac.

But the story that the Times expected to spark astonishment and awards instead spawned humiliation. Combs immediately called the story "beyond ridiculous." And it only got worse from there.

One week later, the Smoking Gun revealed Sabatino's typo-festooned records as frauds. They'd been written on a typewriter — and the FBI hadn't used typewriters for decades. In one of its most embarrassing episodes to date, the Times retracted its investigation, Phillips was laid off, and Sabatino was cooked.

Yet Sabatino denies to this day any subterfuge. The scammer claims he never contacted Phillips. "This was the one con I didn't do," he asserts. In a convoluted theory, he says James Rosemond had masterminded the fake documents and "set me up."

What is clear: Sabatino and Phillip's informant, Dexter Isaac, who later came out in support of the embattled reporter's investigation, shared the same Pennsylvania prison, a spokesperson tells New Times. What's more, inmates there have access to typewriters.

Nonetheless, Sabatino obsesses over the Smoking Gun takedown, disputing every detail, and doing his best to ignore the fact that his most indelible mark on the hip-hop industry isn't as kingmaker but as con man.


This past July, the light of a bright afternoon filtered inside a whitewashed room at Broward Health North. Inside, with his considerable girth spilling across the bed, Jimmy Sabatino was discovering Facebook, a novelty that delighted him no end. He'd been released from prison weeks before, but the transition from 14 years of incarceration to a new, technological world had left him confused and unsure. He'd tried out a job at his father's Boca Raton supermarket, Western Beef, hawking ads, but had quit within weeks. Around that time, he suffered another stroke. So now here he was, feet propped up at the hospital, chatting on Facebook.

"I had a relapse," he wrote on July 17 to his friend Stanley Belot. "But I will be OK."

"You need to lose some weight at your age," responded Belot, now living in Nimes, France, with his girlfriend and son. "Do whatever it takes, but do it quickly."

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Terrence McCoy