Miami-Dade County

Notorious con man tells Miami judge he hears voices in his head

Jimmy Sabatino, (right) who had taxpayer-provided lazy-eye surgery while locked up on fraud and theft charges, talks to his public defender, Stephanie Patton, before he was sentenced to five years as part of a plea deal, Tuesday, September 29, 2014
Jimmy Sabatino, (right) who had taxpayer-provided lazy-eye surgery while locked up on fraud and theft charges, talks to his public defender, Stephanie Patton, before he was sentenced to five years as part of a plea deal, Tuesday, September 29, 2014 Miami Herald staff

In a weak and trembling voice, notorious con man Jimmy Sabatino told a federal judge that he hears voices in his head at night. They’re so loud he can’t sleep.

“I can’t think straight no more,” Sabatino haltingly testified in federal court in downtown Miami on Thursday morning. “I try to think and sometimes things just jump around.”

But a federal judge is no easy mark, and Robert Scola didn’t take the bait, dismissing a motion from a defense attorney to rule the convicted felon mentally incompetent. Sabatino seemed “lucid and responsive,” Scola said.

The 39-year-old Sabatino, pale, heavy and using a wooden cane to walk to the stand, has a sensational and sordid criminal past. He has spent nearly his entire adult life behind bars, mainly for conning hotels into giving him free food, rooms and booze by posing as a record-label or movie-studio executive. He also scored 262 free tickets to Super Bowl XXIX, held in Miami in 1995, by pretending to be a Blockbuster bigwig, later selling them for almost $1,000 a piece.

Sabatino’s latest caper, in the summer of 2013, saw him run up an unpaid tab of nearly $600,000 at four hotels downtown and on Miami Beach.

After the Staten Island native was arrested, he pleaded guilty and was handed a five-year prison term late last year.

His crimes also violated probation he had received years earlier for federal charges, which included calling the FBI in 1998 from a prison cell in England, where he had been arrested, and threatening to kill then-President Bill Clinton and to decapitate a federal judge and two South Florida prosecutors. While in federal prison on those charges in 2003, Sabatino was sentenced to an additional 11 years for a cell-block scheme that defrauded phone carrier Nextel of $3 million.

He was released in 2013, when he again started conning hotels.

Sabatino’s current defense attorney, James Benjamin, argued that Sabatino’s seven-year stay in an ultra-high-security federal prison left his client suffering from mental illness and unable to understand the charges leveled against him or participate in his defense.

Prisoners at the so-called “supermax” facility in Florence, Colorado where Sabatino was incarcerated are kept in near-constant solitary confinement.

The prison is home to America’s most violent and controversial criminals, including the Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev, September 11th co-conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, and former FBI agent Robert Hanssen, convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia.

High-ranking United Nations officials have repeatedly argued that extended solitary confinement is tantamount to torture.

On the stand, Sabatino conjured up quiet tears and said that he has suffered debilitating seizures and strokes for more than a year. (He earlier received $247,000 corrective surgery for a lazy eye — at taxpayer expense — after complaining of severe headaches.)

But Rodolfo Buigas, a forensic psychologist at the Federal Bureau of Prisons, testified that a series of exams showed Sabatino had “no cognitive impairment.” Buigas concluded that prisoner was “malingering” and “exaggerating his symptoms.”

The defense called no expert witness to testify that Sabatino was mentally incompetent.

In frequent jailhouse calls to the Miami Herald, Sabatino usually talks in a rapid-fire patter, displaying far more animation and vocal range than in his court testimony.

He has also filed several court motions on his own behalf over the last year. When asked by Scola how he could have researched and submitted the motions, Sabatino responded that he did so with help from friends.

After ruling the defendant competent, Scola set a new court date in January for a sentencing hearing.

Sabatino could face another five to six years in prison, his attorney Benjamin said, although a judge could order the federal sentence to be served concurrently with the time he owes the state.

Because of his federal probation violations, Sabatino has been transferred from state to federal prison.

Outside the courtroom, Benjamin also said that he had filed a motion late Wednesday night to have prosecutor William Shockley taken off the case.

Benjamin said Shockley was good friends with Paul Schwartz, the prosecutor Sabatino threatened to kill in 1998. The two men worked in the same unit in the United States Attorney’s Office in Fort Lauderdale.

“They’re holding onto this,” said Benjamin, who was appointed by the court to represent Sabatino. “They won’t let go.”

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

An earlier version of this story said Jimmy Sabatino was having sex with a 17-year-old girl at the time of his most recent arrest. Although police initially reported that, Sabatino disputed it and it had no bearing on his guilty plea or sentence.