As he toweled perspiration from his forehead, Iglesias shared the good news with a young executive from Sony Music named Jimmy Sabatino, who sat in the dressing room with him. Sabatino at the time was a plump, baby-faced teenager, carrying 200 pounds on a frame less than five and a half feet tall. He certainly didn't look like an entertainment mogul, what with his shaved head and skin dotted with acne. But he wore a new suit and spoke in a cocky, stream-of-consciousness sort of way that seemed to fit the part. And he carried a gold-plated connection: In telephone calls before the concert, Sabatino had arranged the meeting by claiming to be the nephew of Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola. Iglesias records for Sony, and while talking to Sabatino after the show, he revealed his disappointment with the level of promotion he had received, especially compared with the strong push the label was giving to aging rockers Pink Floyd. "You tell your uncle that the young people love me, too," Iglesias requested, according to more than one person familiar with the encounter.
Sabatino, however, is not the nephew of Tommy Mottola. He is the son of Peter Sabatino, a man described in sealed federal court documents as "reportedly a captain of the Colombo crime family who acted as a liaison with the Gambino family." Jimmy has never worked for Sony, though he harbors ambitions of breaking into the music business. He's also proven time and time again that he can get almost anything he wants from almost anyone.
Over the course of the next few days, until Iglesias learned the teen's true identity, the two racked up some intensive quality time. During one dinner (just the two of them at the singer's Indian Creek mansion in Miami Beach) Iglesias begged for better marketing of Latin acts. Sabatino discussed his plans for possible joint ventures with the crooner, perhaps something involving Luciano Pavarotti.
The ease with which Sabatino infiltrated Iglesias' camp is no surprise to the security chiefs of some of the United States' largest corporations. They've been tracking his exploits for years, ever since he began traveling the world first class by claiming to be an executive at Disney, or the president of Paramount Pictures, or the head of the music division of Warner Bros.
Today, at the young age of 22, he's already a career criminal believed to have conned millions of dollars in goods and services. More than the dollar value, though, it's the way he's grifted that makes Jimmy Sabatino notorious.
He simply asks for things, and people simply give them to him.
As part of his most infamous caper, in 1995, Sabatino exploited Wayne Huizenga's stewardship (at the time) of both the Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. and the Miami Dolphins football team. He posed as a Blockbuster vice president to ask the Dolphins if they had extra tickets to the upcoming Super Bowl, to be held that year in Miami. His inquiry was so convincing that the team sent him a letter, in Dolphins president Eddie Jones' name, explaining when and where the tickets would be sent.
On shipment day Sabatino called Federal Express, claimed to be Jones, and demanded that all 262 tickets be recalled. A friend of his subsequently picked up the tickets at a FedEx distribution center in Miramar, no questions asked. Sabatino sold his haul to ticket brokers at an estimated $900 per, a tidy take of $235,800. But fans who bought the tickets from the brokers -- unaware they were hot merchandise -- were not allowed into the game.
"He's like Tony Curtis in The Great Impostor," says Thomas Hays, vice president for studio protection at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles. "He's so ballsy, it's almost like a challenge for him. In the movie Curtis posed as a doctor or a professor; it was an obsession to him to be someone else. This Sabatino kid is the same way. He's crafty."
The sheer gutsiness of Sabatino's exploits has won him fans in the most unlikely places. "I know I shouldn't say this, but I can't help it: I love the guy," allows Max, a security consultant to a prominent corporation Sabatino has repeatedly victimized. (Max is an alias.) "I can't help but respect what he's able to get away with. Even when he was 17 he'd just walk into the Waldorf-Astoria with three or four or five or ten people, get them all rooms and room service for a week and limousines. He'd have no credit card and would be dressed like a ghetto kid with the crotch of his jeans hanging down to the floor. He's incredible."
Police eventually arrested Sabatino for the Super Bowl caper. He pleaded guilty in Broward County Circuit Court to three counts of dealing in stolen property and two days later to an unrelated charge of fraud for acquiring $12,500 worth of pagers by again claiming to be Tommy Mottola's nephew. For both crimes he served two years in prison.
He's back in prison in Miami's federal detention center (FDC) now, having admitted guilt two weeks ago to his most serious (and most bizarre) crime yet. From a prison in suburban London, England, where he was serving a short sentence for skipping out on a typically outlandish hotel bill, Sabatino telephoned the White House and threatened to kill either Pres. Bill Clinton or his brother, Roger. He also repeatedly called the FBI in Miami and threatened to kill two federal prosecutors, a federal judge, and -- for good measure -- to blow up the federal courthouse in downtown Fort Lauderdale. In several calls he left his full name and date of birth.
As part of a plea agreement, charges arising from the Clinton threats were dropped. But Sabatino awaits sentencing for threatening to kill the prosecutors and the judge; he faces a minimum of four years in prison. He could spend even longer behind bars as a result of two more unrelated charges: violating probation and assaulting a prison guard, a case scheduled for court next week. Outstanding warrants await him in Atlanta, New York City, and who knows where else. "He thinks he's smarter than everybody in the world, and truthfully he is," says Max, the security consultant. "I guess he makes mistakes, too. I think he just went a little bit overboard here."
Jimmy Sabatino declined a formal interview for this story, a fact that surprises almost everyone who knows him. "He loves attention," says Max. "I would think he'd love to talk." Actually Sabatino originally agreed to an interview, then changed his mind. "All he told me is that his father said he would kill him if he talked," says FDC spokesman Erwin Meinberg.
Though Sabatino rejected an interview request and refused to allow his picture to be taken in jail, he did contact New Times through a person who identified himself only as Sabatino's paralegal. "Yeah, he just wants to know when the story is coming out," said the paralegal over the phone. "He also wants to know what pictures of him you plan to use. And he said to say that if you're gonna use a drawing of him, he really, really doesn't want you to use a cartoon. He doesn't want to look funny, OK? And he doesn't want any stupid headlines either."
Obviously Sabatino craves attention. One of the many ways his craving manifests itself occurred on April 9, 1995. A 21-year-old woman named Tashanda Elliot told a Boca Raton police officer that her boyfriend, Jimmy Sabatino, "hit her over the past few days and held her against her will" at a Marriott Residence Inn. Police arrested Sabatino for false imprisonment and on an outstanding warrant from the Sony pagers theft. As he was being transported to the Boca Raton Police Department, he asked an officer if he recognized him from the newspapers.
"Sabatino then told me that he was an equal partner in the theft of the Super Bowl tickets that occurred with Federal Express," wrote Ofcr. John Wagner. "Sabatino told me that he didn't commit the theft but the person who did steal them approached Sabatino for the resale of the stolen tickets for which Sabatino was a willing participant. Sabatino further stated that he did not make the amount of money that the newspaper reported, $250,000."
Four months later Sabatino filed a missing-person report stating Tashanda Elliot had been gone for a day and a half. Eventually he found her at a friend's house in Pompano Beach. In anger he broke down the front door to find Elliot hiding in a bedroom. Sabatino was charged with domestic violence, though he was not convicted. In court, while the prosecutor repeatedly reminded her she was under oath, Elliot changed her story, saying the arrest was all a mistake, that Sabatino didn't shake her or beat her as she had previously claimed.
His current girlfriend lives in Houston, Texas, near the campus of Rice University. Sometimes she telephones reporters who have written or who are currently writing stories about Sabatino. She gives her name only as Shanita. "He's a good guy to me," Shanita says. "Everybody doesn't really know him like I know him. He's a loving and sweet person. He's good with kids." She says they've been seeing each other for most of the past three years, even though he's been in jail for most of the past two. A baby's cry can be heard in the background. Is Jimmy the father? "I can't give out any information about that to you," she says with a laugh. "You're trying to get me killed, right?"
Sabatino was born in Brooklyn, raised on Staten Island. He dropped out of Staten Island High to run one of the family's produce businesses. According to a court-ordered psychological evaluation conducted earlier this year, his "mother was estranged from the family for a number of years before she died of cancer."
That report begins: "Mr. Sabatino is a twenty-one-year-old who hails from a family with alleged ties to the Colombo/Gambino families of the Cosa Nostra. His father reportedly is a captain of the Colombo family who acted as a liaison with the Gambino family."
The evaluation, which drew on documents and affidavits provided by the FBI, as well as arrest data from the National Crime Information Center, remains under court seal. It continues: "According to Mr. Sabatino, from a very early age he became aware that he was treated different than other children. More specifically, others fawned over him and catered to all of his wishes. He soon became aware that this special treatment was accorded to him because his father allegedly held a high position within the Italian-American Mafia. He recalls being fourteen years old and his girlfriend's father asking for favors from him. He also recalled going out to clubs and having people step aside to let him and his cohorts through the crowd. He would always obtain the best seats in the restaurant, and often people would give him money just so that he would speak favorable about them to his father."
Jimmy's father, Peter Sabatino, is the manager of a Bobby Rubino's restaurant in Pompano Beach, part of a Fort Lauderdale-based chain owned by two sons of the late Paul Castellano, the legendary former boss of the Gambino crime family murdered by John Gotti, who succeeded him as boss. A third partner is Frank J. Galgano, grandson of a Gambino captain. (A source with South Florida's Metropolitan Organized Crime Intelligence Unit says Peter Sabatino has "been clean" for at least the past twenty years. Prior to that, no records are available. The elder Sabatino did not respond to a request for an interview.)
"Mr. [Jimmy] Sabatino related a life full of luxury, money, strong family ethics, and immediate gratification," states the court-ordered psychological evaluation. "In fact, he noted how from an early age he became used to immediately obtaining what he desired. If he did not then he would have a 'temper tantrum.' Mr. Sabatino acknowledged having temper tantrums since he was in preschool. As a child Mr. Sabatino either won at every game he played or, if he did not, he would take away the game or stop playing. He also found himself in frequent verbal matches with others which inevitably got him in trouble. He was often expelled from school and his father eventually had to resort to providing the schools with very generous donations and gifts in exchange for tolerating his son's outbursts.
"Mr. Sabatino recalled being twelve years old when he was admitted to the psychiatric ward of [a hospital]," the report continues. "He had been taken to the hospital, he explained, after a week-long temper tantrum during which he kicked and screamed out of anger. (He could not recall what precipitated the anger.)
"At the age of fourteen the defendant was sentenced to juvenile hall for racketeering. At the age of fifteen he was violated [sic] for carrying a gun. As usual, he was granted special privileges even in juvenile hall. 'My father always bailed me out of trouble. I grew up with power and when things didn't go my way I'd blow up. I expect things to go my way. I've been having problems ever since I can remember between having power and having to react to people who would not acknowledge it.'"
Sabatino was arrested in Miami in September 1993. Details of the incident are sealed. More juvenile arrests followed in New Jersey and in Puerto Rico, where he was incarcerated. Those court files are sealed as well.
For most of his professional career, Sabatino operated out of a house in Ocean Ridge, an upscale oceanfront community in Palm Beach County. The house, owned by his uncle, Richard Sabatino, was once a waterfront villa with a four-car garage, expansive windows, a pool, and a hot tub, all with unobstructed ocean views. These days it sits in extreme disrepair, abandoned. The walls have been gutted to the framing. Some windows are broken. Chipped tile dominates the patio, and the pool is empty save a thick green sludge stewing on the bottom.
That home is at the center of a federal criminal complaint against the uncle. In late 1995 Richard Sabatino pleaded guilty to receiving illegally a shipment of stolen Italian shoes valued at nearly a quarter-million dollars. Two of his accomplices in the shoe caper were also convicted of unrelated crimes: participating in a racketeering conspiracy that included kidnapping, robbery, and the distribution of cocaine and heroin.
A federal judge sentenced Richard to two years' incarceration and ordered him to pay more than $200,000 in restitution. In a fresh set of federal charges, filed earlier this year, Richard Sabatino is accused of trying to hide his ownership of the Ocean Ridge house as well as two Bono's rib joints in Palm Beach County to avoid paying his penalties.
In 1982, as part of an ongoing investigation into organized crime at Manhattan's Fulton Fish Market, Richard Sabatino was charged with a fraudulent scheme to obtain $57,000 worth of fish and lobster from a seafood company in Ramsey, New Jersey. He still lives in Palm Beach County but could not be located for comment.
Organized crime is central to Jimmy Sabatino's identity. Often he is the one to bring up the connection. He once told a friend that 75 percent of his business was in the music industry and the remaining 25 percent was in the "Family" business, meaning the Mafia.
"That's a bunch of bullshit," counters a member of South Florida's multiagency Metropolitan Organized Crime Intelligence Unit who insists on anonymity. "Who [in organized crime] would want a guy like him around? How can you trust him? Everything he does draws attention, and attention is usually something you try to avoid."
First-class airline tickets, luxury hotel rooms, limousines, cell phones, pagers by the hundreds, scores of computers -- based on this extensive list of booty, it's impossible to document the number of scams Sabatino has pulled off. The victims include PolyGram, Disney, Delta Air Lines, and American Express. By simply posing as Tommy Mottola's nephew, he used the Sony name to defraud Mac Warehouse of $60,000 in laptop computers, New York's Waldorf-Astoria of $16,000 in rooms and services, and the New York Marriott Marquis of more than $20,000. In Los Angeles he ran up a $16,000 bill at the Ritz-Carlton. His rap sheet spans the globe.
"He's embarrassed many, many companies," says Max the security consultant, who asserts that Sabatino has committed many more crimes than he's been charged with. "I got after him pretty good every time he went after us, but other companies get so embarrassed they hide in the woodwork. Often they won't press charges, preferring instead that the whole thing just disappear."
Max has assembled a Sabatino file five inches thick. Inside it are pictures of the young con artist, the names of other companies he's targeted, of hotels he's ripped off, and of police detectives to whom Max has spoken over the years. Sabatino occasionally calls him just to talk, sometimes from prison. "Jimmy's a likable kid," Max says. "He's a criminal, though. I had a guy from a hotel in New York call me up to say that he sees a discrepancy in this bill for $33,000. He asked if I knew anyone named James Sabatino. When the guy found out all that Jimmy had done, he realized [Sabatino had] run up a hell of a bigger loss than that."
Sabatino's methods are simple, though they usually require a bit of advance work. Say he's targeting a hotel. The first thing he does is write a letter to a major company such as Disney or PolyGram. The response invariably comes back on the company's letterhead and is signed by a company official. A few days before checking in, he'll fax the hotel's front desk with a letter from the official at the company announcing that James Sabatino will be staying at the hotel and that the company will be paying all his charges. Usually it's no more complicated than that, though Sabatino is willing to put in extra work when necessary.
"He'll call a company and say he'd like to speak to the comptroller," explains Max. "Then he'll ask to be directed to the comptroller's comptroller, then to the comptroller's comptroller's comptroller. Finally he'll go, 'Gee, I'm doing the budget. I've got the first four numbers of the budget code [the numbers he needs to bill a hotel room to the company] and I'm having trouble getting the last four numbers.' He gets information from whoever he talks to, and from that they wind up with a problem."
The hotel rooms and airplane seats are almost always booked in his real name; it's one of his calling cards. The entertainment industry is also a common thread running through most of his cons. When he was arrested in Boca Raton on the outstanding warrant for stealing pagers, he gave his occupation as the president of Soundstorm, his own (defunct) music label. He once charged $6000 worth of gifts at Tiffany & Co. in New York City to BMG Entertainment, a recording-industry giant. He brags that he's tight with rappers Lil' Kim, Lil' Cease, and others in the Junior M.A.F.I.A., a rap coalition sponsored by Biggie Smalls, the late rap superstar. Sabatino has boasted of attending the 1995 Grammy Awards with Smalls.
"He's a flashy, flamboyant wannabe in the music industry," Max continues. "He has his own labels. He can go up to a guy like Puff Daddy and bullshit him for two hours, and Puff wouldn't know the difference. He doesn't understand why he's not the next agent for Michael Jackson. The hotels and the limousines, the champagne are all part of his image. He has to have that."
Sabatino often took his hotels and limos and liquor in Atlanta, a capital in the rap-music industry. He always stayed first class and for free, even after getting caught. In May 1994 he conned the Nikko hotel for rooms by posing as a Coca-Cola executive. After a few days, he was discovered and arrested. As soon as his father posted the $5000 bail, Jimmy immediately moved his posse to the Hilton hotel across the street. A week later he jumped to the Renaissance hotel. The same detective arrested him every time. Atlanta police sources say Coca-Cola officials still intend to press charges.
These weren't always victimless crimes. While in one of those Atlanta hotels, he told a representative of SkyTel Communications that he was a Warner Bros. executive and that he was contracting out all of the giant entertainment company's beeper business. The salesman rushed over 75 beepers worth $18,750. A second order of 130 more beepers was on the way when the fraud was discovered. The SkyTel salesman was fired on the spot, according to Max, who is familiar with the case.
When Sabatino checked out of Miami's federal detention center after serving his two years for the Super Bowl caper, he successfully transferred his ten-year probation from South Florida to New York. One day after the transfer, New York City police arrested him when he couldn't pay the nearly $55,000 tab he'd run up at his welcome-home bash at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Times Square. Out on bail from that predicament, he took off for London (in violation of the terms of his probation) and checked into the posh Four Seasons.
He set up those accommodations in the usual way. According to sworn witness statements on file with British law-enforcement authorities, the hotel received a call on January 12, 1998, from an American claiming to be Mike Andrews, chairman of Paramount Pictures. Andrews said a James Sabatino would be staying at the hotel from January 15 through 19. Sabatino was to be afforded a suite and a full accounting, meaning that Paramount would pay for every service he used and everything he bought. The hotel balked at first, noting that they usually deal with Paramount's British division. "Andrews" called back to complain. After he filled out a credit application sent via fax, the reservation was accepted.
During the course of his four-day stay in the luxurious Park Suite, Sabatino inquired at the hotel shop about a Rolex watch worth approximately $40,000. He told a clerk he was working with Sony Recording Studios in London, preparing for a movie being made with Wesley Snipes and Sylvester Stallone. Sabatino asked about a diamond bracelet to go with the watch, an accessory that jacked up the price to more than $100,000. Two days later he called the gift store to say he'd take the watch and also a second platinum Rolex they had in stock. He tried to charge the purchase to his room, but the hotel refused. Thinking quickly on his feet, he said a colleague would be arriving from Paramount in two days with a company credit card and that he would pay for the watches then. Without settling the hotel bill, he took off for Japan.
"On Tuesday morning I received a phone call from Jean Forest, who is director of marketing at Four Seasons in Tokyo," recounted Kristien Deleersnijder in a sworn statement. Deleersnijder is sales and marketing director at the Four Seasons in London. "The text was, 'Do I know a James Sabatino?' I said, 'Yes, of Paramount Pictures.' She said, 'No, of Sony Music.'"
In Tokyo, Sabatino had apparently presented two credit cards to the hotel clerk, both of which were rejected by the hotel's computer. As a possible explanation for the rejection, Sabatino showed her the envelopes from two first-class airline tickets to Tokyo, which probably pushed his credit cards over their spending limits. The tickets, though, were in the name of "Phillips." When contacted by the hotel, Sony Music in Tokyo claimed not to know Sabatino.
Sabatino and a friend immediately flew back to London. Brazenly they tried again to stay at the Four Seasons. Prior to his arrival, Sabatino phoned the receptionist and told her he needed to conduct interviews for Billboard magazine and wanted to book 12 single-occupancy rooms. Hotel management, which was onto him by this time, processed the request. On January 22 police arrested Sabatino at the hotel. He was charged with two counts of obtaining services by deception involving the Four Seasons and the Athenaeum hotels in London, and one count of obtaining property by deception for the Rolex watches he attempted to "purchase."
"Prison life in England was difficult for Mr. Sabatino," states the court-ordered psychological evaluation. "He was away from his cohorts and among individuals who did not know of his peculiar background. He was also labeled a 'Yankee' although his identity, up to then, was that of an Italian-American. The only food he had access to was not appetizing to him, and in addition he was housed in a 'dungeon' with inmates who were predominantly members of the Irish Republican Army.
"Mr. Sabatino placed all of his hopes in being granted bail and returning home to America where the system made sense to him. However, the judge refused to grant him bail allegedly as a result of his intimate ties to the Mafia. The defendant admitted reacting strongly to this decision ('I went ballistic.') in large measure because he did not think this had been a fair decision. Mr. Sabatino promptly placed blame for his legal tribulations on Mr. Jeffrey Kay and Mr. Paul Schwartz, both Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the Fort Lauderdale area."
This is how Jimmy Sabatino goes ballistic, according to a sworn affidavit from Charles O'Neal, an agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Miami:
On May 4, 1998, from his prison outside London, Sabatino called the FBI in Miami and said he would kill Jeffrey Kay. Then he left his name and date of birth. A few minutes later he called back to say he would also kill prosecutor Paul Schwartz. If he couldn't locate them, he said, he'd blow up the whole courthouse.
On May 11, 1998, he telephoned the White House. When the switchboard operator asked what the call concerned, he responded, "A threat against the President." The call was forwarded to a Secret Service agent, to whom Sabatino recited a written statement concerning the people who "were going to die at [his hands] for mistreatment" of him and his family. Included on the list were Kay and Schwartz, "unknown members of the U.S. Secret Service and the FBI," and Bill Clinton or even Roger Clinton, "because [Roger] is more accessible."
According to an affidavit from FBI agent Charles O'Neal, Sabatino explained, in a mangled sort of way, that "members of his family and friends are being targeted and harassed by the U.S. government for reasons being that they believe [them] to be a part of the 'Cosa Nostra' by association." He asked for a presidential pardon for his three outstanding warrants and a letter from Clinton stating he will no longer be harassed.
Later the same day, in another call, he vowed to kill the federal judge who presided over the case of Bonnano crime-family captain Gerald Chilli, a family friend in federal prison for racketeering, gambling, drug trafficking, loansharking, and other crimes.
The calls continued almost daily through mid-June and were much the same. On June 16 he phoned the FBI in Miami. After being assured that a tape recording of the conversation would be forwarded to Schwartz, he said, "You old skinny fuck, I'm going to cut your head off," followed by, "You Jew fuck, I'm going to kill you."
The threats won Sabatino a free trip from Brixton prison in London back to the federal detention center in Miami but only after he had served his complete three-month British sentence. One day after his return, he allegedly assaulted a prison guard.
Sabatino and his lawyer, Allen S. Kaufman, initially announced in court documents that Sabatino planned to plead insanity, with his irrational behavior stemming in part from a brain aneurysm he reportedly suffered in 1995. Kaufman now says the threats telephoned from England were merely a misguided attempt by Sabatino to serve the rest of his British time in the United States. "He had no intention of doing harm to the President or to the prosecutors," Kaufman says. "It wasn't even a consideration. In his mind he thought he'd be able to serve his time in the U.S. Now that was a major mistake."
Three weeks ago, on August 24, Jimmy Sabatino walked into the courtroom of federal Judge Edward B. Davis to plead guilty to the threats against the prosecutors and the judge. Two U.S. Marshals held his arms, his hands cuffed behind his back. Sabatino's head was shaved to a fine stubble, the fat on the back of his neck rolling up like the skin on a shar-pei. His dark eyes drooped sheepishly on a face that hadn't seen sun in almost two years. His right eye is lazy; when he sat next to attorney Kaufman at a table before the hearing began, he seemed to stare into his lawyer's ear. Acne spots covered his forehead. He wore prison-issue tan pajamas.
The few spectators in the gallery sat as if at a funeral, family to the left, three reporters to the right. "How are you feeling?" he mouthed to his father, who sat beside a younger woman whose arm draped over his shoulder. Peter Sabatino quietly responded that he was all right, though he declined to speak to the reporters. "I don't want to talk about it," he said.
Before pronouncing Sabatino guilty, Davis read through a perfunctory list of questions. Do you really want to plead guilty? Do you understand what your plea means? Do you recognize that I am friends with the judge you threatened to kill? Sabatino answered yes to every query.
"I've caused enough trouble," he told Davis in his only statement. "I just want to end this as quickly as possible."
Nothing is going to end soon. Sabatino still faces sentencing for the death threats. This week he is scheduled to begin trial for allegedly assaulting the prison guard, a charge that carries a maximum penalty of ten years in prison. (He has requested to be co-counsel in his assault defense.)
He filed a civil lawsuit last month seeking damages for the nearly full year he spent locked in the FDC's solitary confinement ward. He wants $100 per day in lost income, though he didn't spell out exactly what income he could have been generating from jail. And he also asked for punitive damages of -- what the heck -- ten million dollars.
"As he gets older, it's going to be tougher for him to pull this off," says Max the security consultant. "His boyish charm is leaving him. For years judges would look at him with a gleam in their eye and see this little kid who has taken on the big bad corporation. It will be interesting to see what happens to him now."
Max adds one more thing. "If you get a chance to talk to him," he implores, "give him my love, will you? I mean it."