Every night of his adult life, James “Jimmy” Sabatino has laid his sizable frame on the bed of a prison cell or a hotel suite.
In his fleeting moments of freedom, Sabatino, 36, lives large. His latest caper found him racking up five- and six-figure tabs for fine Champagne, haute cuisine and posh digs — that he never paid for — at swanky South Florida retreats.
Life is good for Sabatino as long as he stays ahead of police, which is rare.
Since the age of 19, Sabatino has spent all but a few weeks behind bars, in jailhouses from Miami to New York to London, snagged for running one con after another.
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Police caught up with him again late last month, holed up at a Coral Gables Hyatt with a 17-year-old girl.
A wannabe high-roller who has previously represented himself in legal matters, Sabatino this month declared himself indigent to a Miami-Dade County judge and requested the court appoint him a public defender. He faces more than 60 years in prison if convicted on new charges that include organized fraud, grand theft and sex with a minor.
“I think everyone regrets what they do after they get caught,” Sabatino told a judge during a 2003 sentencing on fraud and identity theft convictions. “I know this may sound strange, but there is a part of me that just does these things, and I can’t control it.
“My family thinks I like it in prison,” he continued. “They look at me and think that I like it in prison, and the truth is, I don’t, your Honor.”
On May 20, nearly 10 years after Sabatino made that statement in court, he walked out of a federal prison. It was his first taste of the free world since 1998, and it didn’t last long.
Police say Sabatino checked in to the Eden Roc in late July, claiming to work for Warner Bros. and requesting a block of rooms. Posts on Sabatino’s Facebook page show him posing for a photo with the Rev. Jesse Jackson — “crazy night,” Sabatino captioned the shot — at the Eden Roc on July 29. Jackson had been at the hotel that day with the mother of Trayvon Martin, pressing for a repeal of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
After a three-day stay and a $7,000 unpaid tab, Sabatino ditched the Eden Roc and zipped down Collins Avenue in a black Honda Civic to the SLS Hotel. There, police say, he claimed to be with Roc-A-Fella Records, and the hotel fronted him two private villas and a room, letting the bill zoom to $16,000 before Sabatino split.
His freeloading jaunt continued in August and September down South Beach, to the Hilton near South Pointe Park. For five weeks, Sabatino allegedly posed as a Sony executive — a scam he’s run many times before — and guzzled $100,000 worth of Champagne and tallied $74,000 in other charges before skedaddling.
The fun finally stopped at the Hyatt Regency in Coral Gables on Sept. 27, when an alert manager recognized Sabatino — a hard-to-miss figure at 5-foot-5 and 360 pounds — from a wanted bulletin posted at the hotel. Officers say they found Sabatino in bed with the teen and that he had naked photos of her on his phone; he also had $50,000 worth of Champagne in his car.
Sabatino, who was born in Brooklyn and moved as a teen to Boynton Beach, has a standard operating procedure for his hotel scams, as explained in “ Con Kid,” a 1999 cover story on Sabatino in the Miami New Times:
“The first thing he does is write a letter to a major company such as Disney or Polygram,” the article notes. “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.”
Hotel representatives declined to discuss how Sabatino fleeced them for such large amounts before anyone caught on. The staggering amounts of his unpaid bills are “extremely rare,” even by South Beach standards, said Sgt. Bobby Hernandez, a Miami Beach Police spokesman.
“Hotels could prevent these types of scams if they had a point of contact with the corporation that is being billed,” Hernandez said, after speaking with detectives handling the Sabatino case. “This way, when someone arrives and claims to be an authorized user of the pre-existing corporate account, they can verify with the point of contact. Not just take their word and request no documentation to prove they are who they say they are.”
Sabatino’s father once told a judge that his son’s criminal behavior stems from Sabatino’s mother abandoning the family. Peter Sabatino described his son as “a disturbed young man who needed attention like a drug.”
Indeed, some of Sabatino’s scams have been bizarre trips.
He ran an infamous Super Bowl ticket ripoff in 1995, where, claiming to be a Blockbuster executive, finagled his way into 262 free tickets to the game, selling them for a big profit. And he forged FBI documents while in prison that fabricated the roots of the deadly feud between rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., leading to a flawed 2008 investigative report by the Los Angeles Times that the paper had to retract.
Some of his exploits were downright boneheaded. Like the time in 1998 that he called the FBI in Miami from a jail cell outside London, threatening to kill, among other people, then-President Bill Clinton and federal prosecutor Paul Schwartz.
“You old skinny f---, I’m going to cut your head off,” Sabatino was recorded as saying in a call to Schwartz. “You Jew f---, I’m going to kill you.”
Sabatino’s lawyer said his client thought that making the threats would force British authorities to send him back to the United States to face new charges. (“Prison life in England was difficult for Mr. Sabatino,” a court-ordered psychological report noted at the time. “The only food he had access to was not appetizing to him.”)
But his plan backfired: British authorities made Sabatino serve his full sentence there before shipping him back to face charges at home for the menacing phone calls. He assaulted a guard at Miami’s Federal Detention Center within 24 hours of his return, and was later sentenced to serve four years for the death threats and the assault.
Sabatino was months away from finishing his jail term when, in August 2002, Secret Service agents raided his cell, charging him with defrauding phone carrier Nextel out of more than 1,000 cell phones, costing the company millions of dollars.
That con, which Sabatino carried out from behind bars by pretending to be Sony and Viacom bigwigs, earned him another 11 years of lockup.
Sabatino maintained a website in his name from prison. Records uncovered by The Smoking Gun website in 2008 revealed that Sabatino was far from a model inmate: Guards disciplined him more than 30 times for fighting, weapons and other violations.
When he got out in May, Sabatino wasted little time reverting to one of his earliest scams: getting free stuff from fancy hotels.
In 1997, when he finished his sentence for the Super Bowl scam, Sabatino immediately went to New York and threw himself a $54,727 welcome-back party at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. He didn’t pay, of course, and police arrested him.
While he was out on bail for the Marriott incident, Sabatino fled to London, claiming to be a Paramount Pictures honcho to get into the Four Seasons. He was arrested for that unpaid bill, too, which led to his British prison time.
Attempts to contact Sabatino were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach his father, who used to manage Bobby Rubino’s restaurant in Pompano Beach.
A cousin, Josephine Sabatino, said Sabatino has “been this way pretty much all his life.”
“I think if he used his ability to be so convincing at a legit job, he could have been extremely successful in the business world,” she wrote in an email to el Nuevo Herald.
“I wish he would have made better choices so he could be involved with his family and live outside of prison, but I guess that’s not the case.”
El Nuevo Herald writer Maria Perez contributed to this report.