Ever since the inspirational 1973 film, “The Sting,” in which Paul Newman and Robert Redford (with the help of screenwriter David S. Ward) took down a mobster, all America has admired great con men. Last week the Miami Herald’s Evan S. Benn reported on one of the current breed. Jimmy Sabatino apparently enjoyed his sentencing hugely, especially the revelation that even in jail he managed to rip off the government to the amount estimated (by him) at $247,000.
Sabatino, who loves publicity and calls the Heraldregularly, is serving time for fleecing hotels out of $594,000. According to Benn’s entertaining piece, last year, posing as a music-label executive, Sabatino enjoyed the good life at four Miami hotels, ordering $100,000 of booze to go with expensive rooms. He could not drink it all. Some $50,000 worth of Champagne was in his car when police arrested him.
While in jail, he talked his way into getting eye surgery, which he claimed cost taxpayers $247,000. Sabatino, who is only 37, has been conning most of his life, including a 1995 event in which, posing as a Blockbuster executive, he managed to get 262 free tickets to the Super Bowl, which he then sold. Unlike most con artists, who dislike being caught, Sabatino seems to crave recognition for his craft. Benn quotes the man’s father as saying he “needed attention like a drug,” allegedly the result of being abandoned by his mother.
What Sabatino does share with some other famous con men is a strange body. He carries more than 300 pounds on a 5-foot-6 frame. The photo in the Herald made him look like a smiling Humpty Dumpty. His girth, however, is far from a record for his profession. Back in the 1960s in the Philadelphia area, Sylvan Skolnick, whose specialty was bankruptcy for fun and profit, weighed 600 pounds. His nickname was “Cherry Hill Fats.”
One of South Florida’s most notorious con artists was also a bit of a freak. Phil Wilson, who masterminded the Bank of Sark fraud from a Fort Lauderdale office, was a tiny fellow. His specialty was producing beautiful documents that fooled even sophisticated investors. His bank, which actually had been chartered but never activated, was in the Channel Islands off Great Britain. It was a room above a gas station. It operated for four years until exposed. In the 1970s he wrote us from jail after Gold Coast magazine described his work:
“When you said I was a small con man, did you mean small in stature or small in the money we took? We took $40 million.”
By the 1980s, Wilson was out of jail and arrested locally again for running a scam based on taking fees from troubled businesses in return for phony certificates, which theoretically would help get them legitimate loans. Compared to Sark, it was minor league.
Although people such as Sabatino and Wilson enjoyed using their wits to take people’s money, at least they did not kill. The same can’t be said for Michael Raymond (aka Michael Burnett). Raymond attracted attention when he was suspected in the disappearance of Adelaide Stiles, a social writer for the old Fort Lauderdale News. Raymond, another fat guy whose lack of physical assets was offset by smooth talk, romanced the lonely Stiles. After he took what money she had (not nearly as much as he thought), he was suspected of murdering her aboard a boat and dumping her dismembered body in waters off the Florida Keys. It was later discovered that two other Florida business associates of his had similarly disappeared in the 1970s.
Raymond’s special gift was his ability to con the federal government, sort of. He managed to stay out of jail by convincing federal authorities that he could help them in various stings to catch bigger fish, especially political figures. He was a key player in the parking collections scandal that rocked Chicago and New York City in the 1980s. It was a story that began in South Florida when Gaeton Fonzi, a partner in Gold Coast at the time, began looking into Adelaide Stiles’ disappearance. The law finally caught up with Raymond when he was convicted in the mid-1990s of ordering the murder of a New York bank employee who was a witness in a fraud case against him. He died in jail.
Whether their physical appearance had anything to do with turning these men to crime, or whether their mothers are to blame for their unusual bodies, is a mystery. Maybe there is no connection at all. Certainly Paul Newman and Robert Redford did not seem to have any problems with their appearance.