82-year-old serial burglar slipped by doormen to steal US$400k in jewellery, New York police say

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The old man still had it in him. Samuel Sabatino, 82, might have been expected to spend his days relaxing like a typical retiree in Florida, where he lived. But, the police said, he decided to drive all the way up from Miami to New York's Upper East Side over the Labor Day weekend for a different kind of holiday break.

A burglary suspect on the run for nearly a decade, investigators said, Sabatino had perfected his technique: He would slip past doormen by pretending to live there, striking up conversations with residents or complimenting their dogs and walking in with them.

If he raised any suspicion, he would pretend to be befuddled and say he had confused buildings.

The strategy, the police said, had earned him US$400,000 (S$553,000) worth of jewellery and watches from recent heists while people were away on vacation. His unassuming demeanour, simple clothes and large glasses supposedly helped.

"Not your typical ski mask-type guy," said Lieutenant Kevin Blake, who supervised the investigation. "He looks like your typical elderly gentleman."

But last Saturday (Aug 31), after a suspicious doorman at a Manhattan residential building asked Sabatino to leave, he was met on the pavement by plainclothes officers who had been surveilling him. He was carrying an empty black bag, the police said.

Sabatino was arrested and charged with 11 counts of burglary, capping what prosecutors described as an "extensive and high-tech investigation" in multiple states. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison.

"I'm relieved because this was becoming a yearly occurrence, because we could expect to get hit, on Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Tabor Day weekend every summer," Lt Blake said. "And it was becoming a bit frustrating that we couldn't catch the guy. I mean he's 82 years old, but he was elusive to say the least."

Sabatino's lawyer, Ms Renee Hill, could not immediately be reached for comment.

Sabatino's daughter, Trina, sounded shocked at news of his arrest. "Oh no!" she cried over the phone, letting out a long wail. "But he's 81!" She declined to comment on his life or his motive.

The police suspect Samuel Sabatino of involvement in at least 12 burglaries since around 2014. But his criminal record goes back decades.

Lt Blake described him as a "career criminal" who has had brushes with the law going back to the late 1960s, almost all for burglaries.

Then, in 2001, when he was in his early 60s, a resident of an Upper East Side building found him inside his apartment, a criminal complaint said. Sabatino pretended to be checking for gas leaks, but the doorman called the police. He was found to have 42 pieces of jewellery in his pockets as well as a list of apartments with times noted next to them, the complaint said.

Facing up to 15 years in prison, he jumped bail. The police soon lost track of him after he started using alternate identities.

At Sabatino's arraignment on Sunday, Ms Rachel Polisner, an assistant district attorney, said that for years, Sabatino went by James Clement, among other names. During summer holidays, she said, he would drive from Florida to New York City, but possibly also to California, Arizona and Pennsylvania on burglary sprees.

Ms Polisner requested that the judge set bail at $1 million, saying he was a flight risk.

Lt Blake said plainclothes officers had been surveilling high-rise buildings on the Upper East Side hoping Sabatino, who earned the nicknames the "Fourth of July Burglar" and "Holiday Bandit", would return for one more heist.

"This is all he knows," Lt Blake said, adding: "He's one of the more brazen that I've seen. He didn't have any fear of being stopped."

Sabatino typically slipped into high-end residential buildings, going to the top floors carrying a black bag, Lt Blake said. He looked for signs of vacationing residents - newspapers or packages left in the hallway - and would fiddle with the doorknobs until he found an unlocked door.

If he ran into a suspicious tenant, "he would say, 'Oh, I think I have the wrong floor'", the lieutenant explained.

"People not thinking much of it would go about their business until days later when they realised the building had been burglarised," he said. "You would never expect a man his age to be doing this."

Sabatino is suspected in the burglaries of three New York apartments this year, prosecutors said.

A couple living in an apartment on East 79th Street said that upon returning from vacation in May, they found jewellery worth US$50,000 was missing. The same month, another couple in the building returned from vacation and also found that about US$50,000 in watches and jewellery was missing. In July, a third couple, living on East 68th Street, returned from vacation and reported several high-end watches with an estimated value of US$39,000 missing.

The police finally caught up to Sabatino by tracking his vehicle - registered to James Clement - from Florida to the New York City area, Ms Polisner said.

That's how they ended up outside the Upper East Side apartment building last Saturday.

Inside, Sabatino had passed the security desk at the upscale residential building on Third Avenue. He was just about to reach the lifts when a doorman stopped him.

Sabatino said he was there to see his cousin Suarez, the complaint read, tipping off the doorman, who knew there were no Suarezes who lived in the building. The doorman asked Sabatino to leave, and he exited into the waiting arms of police officers.