South Florida

Serial con man admits ripping off luxury retailers from Miami prison cell

Con man pleads guilty to running a racketeering operation from inside a Miami jail

Jimmy Sabatino, 40, pleaded guilty to running a racketeering operation using cellphones from within a Miami jail on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017.
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Jimmy Sabatino, 40, pleaded guilty to running a racketeering operation using cellphones from within a Miami jail on Friday, Sept. 1, 2017.

Jimmy Sabatino admits he’s addicted to the con — even from behind bars.

Sabatino, who has been in and out of jail his entire adult life, pleaded guilty yet again in Miami federal court on Friday, this time for using cellphones purchased from corrections officers to run a racket that involved duping luxury retailers and fencing high-priced goods through pawn shops.

The store owners were led to believe that their fancy jewels, watches and handbags would be loaned for placement in music videos shot in Miami.

One New York City jewelry store owner reported to FBI agents that the business was swindled out of $700,000 worth of jewelry — among the millions in goods Sabatino is accused of ripping off from his jail cell.

Sabatino, a 40-year-old New York native, kept some of the illicit profits for himself, but also gave a piece to an associate of the Gambino organized crime family, according to his plea agreement. He also directed a co-conspirator “to harm or kill” others involved in his jailhouse caper.

The Justice Department has grown so weary of Sabatino — who continued his racket from jail even after he was indicted on fraud charges last year — that it is imposing a gag order that restricts his verbal communications to family members and his attorney, Joe Rosenbaum. The lawyer told U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard that Sabatino is being kept in a special housing unit by himself at the Federal Detention Center because authorities “are worried about him doing this again.”

Sabatino is a legendary Miami con artist whose past crimes have included posing as a music executive while running up hundreds of thousands in unpaid tabs at Miami resorts and pretending to be an entertainment mogul to acquire hundreds of free Super Bowl tickets.

For his latest score, Sabatino faces up to 20 years on the racketeering conspiracy charge and imprisonment at the notorious maximum security facility in Florence, Colorado. His sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 13 before Lenard, who grew frustrated from time to time during Sabatino’s plea hearing because of his bizarre and evasive responses.

When the judge asked if he had any health issues, Sabatino, sitting in a wheelchair, responded: “I have health issues, but not ‘crazy’ health issues.”

When Lenard read aloud his nine aliases and asked him if he used them, he variously responded: “yes,” “no,” “sometimes,” “twice” and “a lot.” Asked if he ever used the alias “Paul Marino,” he said: “A lot of people used him, but I could be one of them.”

And when she advised him that he was losing certain civil rights because of his guilty plea, he responded at one point: “You mean I can’t run for office?”

“Yes, it might affect your right to run for office,” the judge said.

His latest scheme began in fall of 2014: Through emails and phone calls, the pudgy prisoner posed over the phone as a Sony executive and reached out to a host of luxury store managers to convince them to turn over their jewelry, watches and other goods to be displayed in splashy music videos, federal prosecutor Christopher Browne said in court.

Sabatino’s real plan, however, was to enlist a fellow inmate and others on the street to redirect the expensive items and take them to pawn shops, according to a statement filed with his plea agreement.

Sabatino, who is serving time at the Miami federal facility for probation violations and defrauding the luxury hotels, was indicted last year along with a fellow prisoner and two others on conspiracy, wire fraud and mail fraud charges in the FBI investigation. The other defendants already pleaded guilty and were given prison time.

For years, the Staten Island native has captivated connoisseurs of flim-flam artistry with his brazen crimes. These have included calling the FBI from a prison cell in England and threatening to kill then-President Bill Clinton, which got him brought back to the United States, and running a scam from prison several years later that defrauded the phone provider Nextel out of about $3 million.

He even managed to convince Miami-Dade corrections officials three years ago to pay to repair a lazy right eye after falsely complaining he’d suffered a stroke and was experiencing severe headaches.

His most-recent case was launched from the federal prison in Miami, after Sabatino and others agreed to target the stores for watches, jewelry and handbags — some in the exclusive Bal Harbour Shops. The way it worked was simple: Sabatino, using a fake name, contacted brand representatives and store managers through a barrage of emails, text messages and phone calls.

In some cases, he posed as an executive for RocNation, the entertainment firm founded by rapper Jay Z and whose clients have included Shakira, Rihanna and Big Sean.

In each case, Sabatino claimed if the stores sent their wares to his business partners, the jewelry and handbags would be displayed in music videos and advertising materials produced in Miami for wide distribution.

Sabatino, who went by “James Prolima,” told the store managers to ship the items to co-defendants Valerie Kay Hunt, 54, of Davie, and Denise Siksha Lewis, 36, of North Lauderdale, prosecutors stated. Also helping Sabatino: inmate George Duquen, 54, of Davie.

From the prison, Sabatino and Duquen told the two women to haul the wares to pawn shops to be sold.

For Sabatino, the charges could add more prison time for a man who has spent half of his life in custody.

Last year, he confessed to a federal judge that he’s never learned how to live a normal life because he’s spent so much time in prison.

“I don’t know what the answer is, but I know incarceration is not helping me,” Sabatino told U.S District Judge Robert Scola. “I want to change. I’m being honest with you.”

His intense soliloquy in Miami federal court persuaded Scola to impose just a two-year sentence for violating his probation on federal crimes after he admitted to state charges of staying at luxury hotels and running up nearly $600,000 in unpaid bills.

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