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Notorious Miami con man argues he is the most restricted prisoner in America


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    MIAMI (WFOR) — On the twelfth floor of the James Lawrence King Federal Justice Building in downtown Miami, three judges from the U.S. Court of Appeals recently heard arguments in a case involving notorious conman James Sabatino.

The 46-year-old’s crimes date back decades. When he was 18 he called the local Fed Ex station in Broward County 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.

In the Nineties, in a scene out of the movie Catch Me If You Can, Sabatino conned airlines and hotels around the world that he was a music industry executive in order to travel from Europe to Asia and back again.

After he was convicted in charges stemming from that case, he was sent to a prison in New York where he ran a complex con from inside the prison to steal 1,000 cell phones by claiming he worked for a production company and needed the phones shipped to a location for his crew. The phones were then picked up by Sabatino’s confederates on the outside and sold on the black market.

After serving time for the stolen cell phones, he was released and returned to Miami where he immediately began cheating high-end hotels in Miami out of hundreds of thousands of dollars by pretending to represent high-end celebrities and record companies – including Jay Z’s Roc Nation and Sony Records. He would line up suites and run up massive room service charges. In one, five-week stint, he racked up nearly $600,000 in unpaid bills.

After he was arrested on the Miami hotel case, Sabatino ran an even bigger con while sitting in the federal detention center. Working with corrupt guards who smuggled him a cell phone, Sabatino went to work convincing major jewelry companies that he represented Jennifer Lopez, Justin Timberlake and Jessica Alba, and to provide jewelry those celebrities would wear in various music videos. They ended up sending Sabatino more than $10 million in jewels, most of which have never been recovered.

In 2017, Sabatino plead guilty to the jewelry case and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Today, Sabatino is housed in a special unit inside the federal prison in Colorado known as Supermax, where he has more restrictions on who he can speak to than any other prisoner in the country. Other than his attorney, Sabatino is allowed only one outside contact. He is permitted to speak to his stepmother twice a month for no more than 15 minutes a call.

“It should also be noted that all of Sabatino’s communications are monitored by the FBI,” his attorney, Israel Encinosa, wrote in court filings prior to the hearing. “His outgoing letters are first scanned by the BOP and sent to the FBI for approval before being mailed and the same process for incoming letters before he receives them. Likewise, his 2 social monthly phone calls are live monitored by an agent from the FBI. Thus, it is impossible for Sabatino to communicate any information the FBI deems inappropriate.”

For the past four years, Sabatino has asked to add a second name – his stepmother’s fiancé, Paul Calegan – to the list of people he can speak to. (Sabatino’s father died several years ago.)

“There is no rational Government interest in restricting Mr. Sabatino’s communication with Mr. Calegan,” Encinosa wrote. “There has been no finding or even a showing that there is reason to believe Mr. Calegan would enable Sabatino to continue illegal activity from his prison cell.”

“Sabatino is the only inmate in the country limited to just one social contact, all of the other inmates on communication restrictions have multiple approved contacts,” Encinosa continued. “Sabatino seeks just a second one. Additionally, the person he seeks to add, Mr. Calegan, lives with and has the same phone number as his other approved contact, [his stepmother] Carol Fardette. Thus, he would write Ms. Fardette and Mr. Calegan at the same time, no additional resources would be needed.”

Sabatino is suing the federal government saying the restrictions against him are illegal and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

During the January 18 hearing before the three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals, prosecutors noted that Sabatino agreed to the communication restrictions when he pleaded guilty. And at the time, Sabatino told the judge that if these restrictions weren’t in place, he would continue to commit crimes. But as his lawyers now argue, the restrictions violate federal law, which says the government can only restrict contact with “specified persons” and cannot simply declare everyone in the world as being off limits to him.

Prosecutors also maintain Sabatino was working on behalf of the Gambino Crime Family and continues to have connections he could exploit if he was allowed to communicate with people outside of the prison.

The judges seemed intrigued by the case. Judge Adalberto Jordan said “it may not be kosher for parties to agree” to an action that violates the law.

Judge Andrew Brasher said he was amazed at how Sabatino was able to conduct “massive frauds that were bizarrely successful” adding that Sabatino “is a unique character.”

The hearing offered a rare look into what life is like in the most restrictive and isolated prison in the country. Supermax currently houses some of the country’s most notorious criminals, including Unabomber Ted Kaczynski; Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols; shoe bomber Richard Reid; 9/11 terrorist Zacarrias Moussaoui, and FBI agent turned Russian spy Robert Hanssen.

According to his attorney, in order to keep Sabatino from having contact with any other prisoners, Sabatino is held in a special cell block within the prison with only one other person – Drug Kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

“Mr. Sabatino is housed at the Federal Supermax ADX Florence,” Encinosa wrote. “He is in a special wing of the “Special Administrative Measures” (“SAM”) Unit called “The Suites.” There are only four cells in the wing; each 12′ x 7′ cell is equipped with a bed, desk, bathroom, shower, and a separate recreation cage. Sabatino’s cell has a camera equipped with night vision and sound, this subjects Sabatino to 24/7 audio and visual surveillance, which is monitored and recorded by both the BOP and the FBI. The only other inmate on the range is alleged Drug Kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Sabatino is prohibited any contact, association or communication with anyone else in the unit.”

Sabatino’s attorney notes that even Guzman is allowed more than one social contact.

It will likely be weeks, if not months before the court decides, but regardless of the decision, the case could make its way to the Supreme Court to decide if such restrictions violate the Constitution.

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