MAIMI (CBSMiami) – Con man Jimmy Sabatino would target some of the best hotels on South Beach. Pretending to be a Sony Music executive or a Warner Brothers producer, he would book large blocks of rooms, including villas and presidential suites, with nothing more than audacity and a Gmail account.
“I would literally scratch my head in amazement that it worked, that it happened,” he said. “It defied logic.”
The SLS, the Hilton Bentley, the Eden Roc, and the Omni Hilton, all fell victim to Sabatino’s talents. Over a three month stretch, Sabatino ran up more than $600,000 in room charges before skipping out on the hotel staff before they realized Sabatino wasn’t with Sony or Warner Brothers.
In September, the 38-year-old Sabatino was sentenced to five years in prison for his latest con. Following his sentencing, he sat down in the Miami-Dade County Jail with CBS4’s Jim DeFede for his first and only television interview.
Asked if he was indeed a con man, Sabatino shrugged: “I understand why someone would refer to me as that, but it don’t define me.”
When he was 18 he called the local Fed Ex station in Broward and convinced them he was the president of the Miami Dolphins and needed to retrieve two crates of envelopes the Dolphins had just shipped. Sabatino ended up with $268,000 worth of Super Bowl tickets. He got two years for that crime.
Sabatino said his lifestyle may seem glamorous to some but clearly he’s paid a price – having spent nearly his entire adult life in prison.
“It was exhilarating, I’ve seen a lot of things, I’ve done a lot of things,” Sabatino said. “But it goes back to the repercussions’ and it’s not worth it. Impulse control; I don’t think it through, I don’t think the ending through.”
Over the years he’s pulled other capers. He conned Nextel out of more than a million worth of cell phones – while he was inmate in a federal prison. But his most reliable targets have always been hotels.
“It’s not as complicated as one might think it was,” Sabatino said. “The reservation manager would receive a phone call from an executive at let’s say Sony music. The conversation would be along the lines of, `This is so and so from Sony Music. I have a party coming in to Miami. We’re going to need to reserve X amount of rooms.’”
He would then send a confirmation email to the hotel’s finance department pretending to be Sony’s VP of Finance James Harvey
“The whole procedure would be an email,” he said. “In the case of all the hotels on Miami Beach it was from a Gmail account.”
CBS4 News reviewed dozens of these emails. In one, it simply states: “We are requesting the direct billing of ALL CHARGES. That is room/tax and all incidentals.” Direct billing means the guest pays nothing, the bills instead should be sent directly to Sony.
The hotels were happy to comply. The reservations agent at the Hilton wrote back eagerly: “Thank you for the opportunity.”
He would invite friends to join him, including some local rappers. And wherever he went inside the hotel he was given the VIP treatment. At the Omni Hilton, he reserved seven standard rooms and three Presidential Suites for more than two weeks. Why so many rooms? To hide all of the room service charges. Receipts from the hotels reveal that in one 20 minute span, for instance, he ordered 32 bottles of high priced champagne to four different rooms under his control. And he knew no one would question it.
“You know it’s the same every time,” he said. “It’s basically the greed that they have and I play off their greed.”
On one day alone at the Omni he ordered 144 bottles of Dom Perignon, Cristal and Ace of Spades to the Presidential Suite – the automatically included gratuity for the hotel staff on that room service charge: almost $11,000.
“How were you converting that room service into cash?” DeFede asked.
“You don’t think I was drinking 500 bottles of champagne do you?” Sabatino smiled.
“So you were reselling them?”
“I don’t drink. I don’t drink alcohol,” Sabatino said. “I’ve never done a drug in my life and I don’t drink alcohol. So if one ordered 150 bottles of champagne, maybe ten bottles would be opened up, for appearances for people that were in the room, the other 130 bottles were put to the side.”
Sabatino would then sneak the bottles out of the hotel
“Some of the best clubs and high-end liquor stores in Miami were buying them at discounted prices,” he said.
“What clubs were you selling to?”
“I don’t want to name them, but very well-known clubs in Miami Beach were buying them, very well-known clubs were buying them,” Sabatino said. “Right from the back we were bringing them right to them with no problem. They were happy to buy them.”
Sabatino was caught this time around just as he has been in the past – by pushing the con too far. Two months after being cleaned out of nearly half a million dollars the general manager for the Hilton Omni finally wrote in an email: “Can we please confirm the legitimacy of James Harvey?”
Sabatino knows he pushes it past a point of no return.
“I could have left at $5,000, $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 and so on,” he said. “I kept going until I get caught and as intelligent as I am its common sense that I’m going to be caught. But I don’t stop.”
Sabatino was arrested a short time later while staying at a hotel in Coral Gables. He pleaded guilty to grand theft and organized fraud in July.
“In my entire career of being a con artist, I’ve never stolen anyone’s pension, I’ve never took anyone’s personal money, my victims have always been companies, corporations,” he said. “Again I’m not justifying it but I’m saying in my mind there was some integrity to what I have done.”
Facing another prison term, Sabatino grew reflective about his life.
“I did experience or see a lot of things that a lot of people would probably say wow,” he said. “I’ve done probably more than a lot of people have done in their entire life, but I still wouldn’t trade it for my life, which is what I’ve done. I’ve spent my entire life in prison, my adult life; I have more years in prison as a human being alive than I do as a free person.”
He says he’s hoping when he gets out in about four years things will be different
“Hopefully I can channel it for good, hopefully I can figure this out and I think I will,” he said. “I think I’ll come home and be a better person this time and maybe do something that makes a difference in a positive way.”
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