By Michael E. Miller
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By Sabrina Rodriguez
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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 boxload, scores of computers -- it's impossible to document the number of scams Sabatino has pulled off. The victims include Polygram, Disney, Delta Airlines, 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 Marriott Grand 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 police detectives Max has spoken to 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 Jr. 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. After 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.