22 October 2009

The Con Game (A True-Crime Story)

At about 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday, 29 August 1995, I was awakened by a phone call from a man who said he was "George Smalls" with the Detective Bureau. He asked for Mrs. or Mr. R*****d K****r and gave my phone number and address, including my ZIP code, but not my apartment number. He said that he had in custody someone who had given my name to call "and no one else." Smalls told me he could not tell me who was under arrest, but that if I identified the person he would confirm it. He did offer an explanation for this procedure, but in the ensuing confusion I'm afraid I’ve forgotten what excuse he made. When I said that I couldn't guess whom he could be talking about, he offered that the arrested person was a relative. I asked if it was my brother D*****s, although he lives in California and I hadn't seen him or heard from him in over a decade. Smalls "confirmed" that D*****s was being held because he was with another person who had a gun. He explained that my bother hadn’t had the gun.

I was immediately a little suspicious because, first, there is no Mrs. R*****d K****r and my brother would know that; second, Smalls wouldn't identify the arrested person before I gave him a name; and, third, my brother hadn’t communicated with me or any other member of our family for a very long time. I wouldn't have thought that he even knew my address and phone number, though, of course, I’m listed in the phone directory. In fact, all the identifying information Smalls used when he first called me was available from the telephone book as long as he had my name: residence address and ZIP code; my apartment number is not listed, and he didn't seem to have that. Still, I wasn't certain that there might not be some validity to the story, and I wasn't prepared to ignore the possibility that my brother was sitting in jail somewhere waiting for me, so I didn't question Smalls but let him give me instructions for bailing my brother out before he was transferred to Rikers Island.

Smalls told me that my brother had a checkbook and valid credit cards with him, but that if he didn't post bail in cash, it would take three days for a check to clear and he'd have to wait at Rikers Island. He kept emphasizing the fact that he could have my brother transferred to Rikers Island if I waited too long, an implied threat he used several times over this experience. If I wanted to get my brother released to my custody, I would have to pay bail in cash. Then I would be responsible for my brother until he appeared in court in three to four weeks. I asked Smalls how much the bail would be, and he put me on hold to "check"; I could hear him ask someone else apparently on another phone and he returned to say that I’d need $2,900.

Smalls provided me with various explanations and instructions regarding this putative situation in a very disjointed manner and I had to repeat some of what he said and ask several questions along the way. On several occasions he said he was putting me on hold, though the phone connection never was broken and I could hear him ask for information from other people. It all sounded very official and I could hear noises that sounded like a busy office, and the echo over the phone of other voices and the shuffling of people who sounded like they were in the same large room. Smalls elicited some information about me, such as where I was employed and whether I had ever been arrested myself. He took my New York driver's license number, put me on "hold," returned to the phone, and "confirmed" that I had no record.

In order to post the bail, Smalls specifically said I’d have to send the money by Mailgram. He asked me if I knew where the nearest Mailgram office to me was and when I said I didn't, he immediately provided me a phone number to call (1-800-666-394-7266) and told me that he'd hang up so I could call the number and get the location of the Mailgram office, then he’d call me back. He hung up and I called the number he gave me. I had trouble getting a dial tone at first because the connection from Smalls's call wasn't broken. It took me several minutes of trying before I could break the connection and call out but I finally got the address of the Mailgram location, Freeman Check Cashing, 94 Eighth Avenue at 14th Street. Smalls called me back as he said and asked if I had the address and phone number of the nearest Mailgram and I gave him the information. At the start of both Smalls's phone calls, after I picked up the receiver, a recorded voice came on the line saying, "Please hold," then Smalls picked up. This was the routine every time Smalls called me.

Smalls had explained that I must bring the $2,900 in cash to the Mailgram office and instructed me exactly how to fill out the transmission form. I was supposed to fill in my name, address including ZIP code, and phone number including area code. He stressed this because, he explained, this was how he’d bring up my brother's paperwork on the computer when I presented the Mailgram receipt for his release. Under "receiver," I was to list "Jeffrey Pacheco"--Smalls spelled the name for me--but I was to leave the receiver's address and phone number blank. I was supposed to omit this information in order to preserve the anonymity of my brother's arrest, otherwise, Smalls explained, it would be in the newspaper. I would have to pay the Mailgram fee of $110 or $120--Smalls wasn't sure--which I wouldn’t get back. Smalls was explicit that I would have to get this back from my brother directly whether he appeared in court or not.

This was the part of the story that conclusively convinced me that I probably was involved in a con game of some kind. I couldn't understand how the Mailgram office could wire money to someone without an address of some kind, and I doubted any government office would authorize receipt of money under an individual's name rather than an office or job title of some kind. I also was dubious that bail could be sent by wire directly to a city office this way without my having to appear in person with cash. The odd amount of the bail--$2,900, not $3,000--seemed questionable, too. Nonetheless, I was unsure enough to feel I'd better get the money from the bank just in case this all turned out to be true.

Smalls's instructions for the release of my brother were as follows: After I’d wired the money to "Jeffrey Pacheco," Smalls said he’d call me back again at 10:30 or 10:45 a.m. to see if I’d sent it. I’d need to present a receipt for the Mailgram and a phone or light bill with my name and address on it at Room 506, 100 Center Street, which Smalls identified as the Detective Bureau. (That’s the criminal courts building where I’ve done jury duty several times. The DA’s office is there, too, I believe. But I’m not aware that any police offices are in that building; they’re all at 1 PP, I think.) That's where my brother would be released to me. Smalls was going to send a "radio car" for me when the paper work was finished so I wouldn't have to come downtown and wait for several hours while my brother's release was processed. This, too, didn't sound plausible: cops don’t act as chauffeurs.

Before I left for the bank, I tried to call the Detective Bureau. I couldn't find a listing for this office in the phone book, and I tried to call the Police Department general information number but got no answer. I also called the Central Booking number for Manhattan, but the line was continuously busy and I didn't want to wait any longer. At the time, I didn't think to call my local precinct, though I did do that later.

While I was on the street, I tried several more times to reach the general information number from pay phones but I was unsuccessful. I then stopped a uniformed officer on 14th Street near the northwest corner with 6th Avenue to get his advice on what I should do. He agreed that this was some kind of extortion attempt and he asked me if I’d recently lost my wallet or had my credit cards stolen or anything like that. I hadn't, but the officer was still certain that this wasn’t a legitimate arrest situation. The officer asserted that if my brother had indeed been arrested, there was no reason he wouldn’t have been allowed to speak with me himself. Furthermore, if it was clear, as Smalls specified, that the gun wasn’t my brother's or in his possession, he wouldn’t even have been arrested at all.

I went back to my apartment at about 10:15 a.m. and called the 13th Precinct and described the situation to the desk officer. (I didn't note the names of either the officer on the street or the officer at the precinct to whom I spoke.) The officer at the 13th Precinct said he couldn’t confirm that my brother was in fact under arrest somewhere or that George Smalls was a real detective. This officer's advice was that I go down to 100 Center Street myself and check out what I'd been told.

While I’d been out of the apartment, I believe Smalls tried to reach me on the phone. There was a call on my answering machine, but no message. The tape didn't indicate the usual "hang-up," but sounded as if the caller had left the line open but didn't say anything after the machine picked up. I could hear the same "office noises" I’d heard when Smalls called me previously. Later I’d return home to find the same "blank" message on my machine after I’d been out pursuing this case. In none of the three such "messages" were any words spoken on the tape; there was just "dead air."

Smalls did call me back as he promised at about 10:45 a.m. He asked if I’d sent the Mailgram and if I had the receipt. I told him that I was having trouble getting the cash because my local bank account didn’t have enough in it to cover so large a withdrawal. I was having to arrange a transfer of funds from a bank in another state so I could write a check to cover the bail. I explained that my bank couldn't tell me how long this would take but it would certainly be several hours and there was no way of speeding up the procedure. I told Smalls that I’d tried to reach him by phone to tell him I was having trouble but that I hadn't been able to get a phone number for his office. I asked him for a number in case I needed to reach him again and he gave me 212-288-5551. I asked if I could speak to my brother, but Smalls said I couldn't do that until he had been booked and fingerprinted. He also asked if I wanted him to have D*****s transferred to Rikers Island. Of course, I told him I didn't want that, and that I was on my way downtown to see what I could do. After I said that, I realized that I probably shouldn't have, but it was too late. I assumed that if he knew that I was going to check him out at 100 Center Street, and if he wasn’t legitimate as I now suspected, he’d end the contacts with me. Oddly enough, after I left for lower Manhattan, I think Smalls called me anyway because there was the second of the "blank" messages on my answering machine when I got back to my apartment.

After I spoke to Smalls I tried to hang up the phone so I could call the number he gave me but I found that the connection again hadn't been broken and I couldn't get a dial tone just like the first time Smalls called me. This time, while I was tapping the reset button on my handset, another voice came on the line. It sounded like a woman, though it may have been a man disguising his voice, and it appeared to be an African-American from the speech pattern, but the conversation wasn't long enough for me to be sure. "She" said, "Detective Bureau," and asked me whom I was on hold for. I explained that I wasn't supposed to be on hold, that I was trying to hang up. I said I’d been talking to Mr. Smalls, and I was transferred to him again. This further suggests that there were several people in the "office," and that the telephone system is fairly complex, with extensions and possibly multiple lines. I finally broke the connection and tried to call the number Smalls gave me, but I kept getting a high-pitched electronic tone, like the sound you get if you call a fax machine or a modem on a voice line. I then went to 100 Center Street and found Room 506, but it wasn’t an open office of any kind. It was a locked door, marked 501-506; Room 501 was a large office but clearly not a police office. I’d asked the guard on the floor and she didn't seem to know anything about a detective office on the fifth floor and wasn't even sure there was any office in Room 506. I felt sure that if there were a detective office on or near the fifth floor or if people under arrest were processed near there, the guard would know where it was. She recommended that I check on the first floor in the Arraignment Clerk's office, Room 131, to see if D*****s K****r's name appeared on the list of arrested people. I checked at that office and was informed that no one named K****r was on the list. I asked if there was any other place where such information might be located, but the clerk didn't know of any. I asked the guard at the central desk at 100 Center Street if there was any detective or police office in that building or any of the other court buildings nearby where I might check. The guard on duty said there was none and suggested that I go to 1 Police Plaza.

I walked down to 1 PP to see if I could confirm once and for all both that my brother wasn’t in custody and that George Smalls wasn’t a real city agent of any kind. The officer at the desk in the lobby of 1 PP said that he couldn’t confirm any of this there, and that I had to call Central Booking and then make a report to my local precinct. At this time, I went back home to follow these recommendations.

I got home about 12:30 p.m., finding the second "blank" message on my machine, and called Central Booking in Manhattan. It took several attempts to get through, but when I was successful I determined that D*****s K****r hadn’t been arrested on the previous day, 28 August, or during the intervening night. It wasn’t conclusive that he hadn’t been arrested earlier on the morning of 29 August and a list of those names wouldn’t be available until after 3 p.m. Meanwhile, I called the 13th Precinct and repeated my story and the conclusions I had reached to this point. I was transferred to an Officer Brock in the Complaint Room and he instructed me to come in to the station to make a complaint. When I arrived at the 13th Precinct and reported to Officer Brock, he told me that detectives from the Internal Affairs Bureau had contacted him about me and were on the way to the precinct to speak to me. I never learned how they had heard of me or learned that I was going to be at the precinct at that time. Except at the Arraignment Clerk's office, I hadn't used my name until I called the 13th Precinct to make the complaint a few minutes earlier. Nevertheless, while in the precinct Complaint Room waiting to fill out the complaint, I received a phone call from a Detective Rendine of IAB and I related the details to him. I subsequently filed this complaint under criminal impersonation and attempted larceny and was in contact with Detective Rendine who instructed me to contact him or P.O. Myles if Smalls called me again. When I returned again to my apartment, at about 2:30 p.m., I found the third "blank" message on my answering machine with the same noises as before. I reported this attempted contact to Officer Myles, but after that time, there was no further contact from Smalls.

From the detectives I learned that Smalls was a prisoner on Rikers Island who had been using his phone privileges to run this con on lots of people right from jail. He culled random phone numbers from directories in the Rikers library and then used the pay phones to make the calls. He had accomplices on the outside, like “Jeffrey Pacheco,” who assisted him and picked up the “bail” and through whom Smalls set up three-way calls so that it sounded as if he was in an office somewhere with a receptionist who placed his calls and then connected the victim to the "detective." The con was always the same as the one Smalls--I didn’t learn his real identity until much later--tried to pull on me. The police had been on him before he called me that morning, which is how they knew my name and contact info even before I reported the call to my local precinct. He had pages torn from the phone directories and the cops were contacting the people whose names were on them.

In December, some time after this all unfolded, I was summoned to testify before a grand jury. I told the ADA who’d contacted me, and who later interviewed me in the DA’s office, that I didn’t know many details and couldn’t identify any of the people involved. The ADA explained that my testimony would be used to affirm that a crime had taken place and to establish the particulars of the con. I reported to the criminal courts building and duly answered questions about what had happened that morning of 29 August. The ADA explained to me that if further testimony was called for, such as for a trial, they’d call me, but that the DA’s office hoped that the evidence would preclude a trial altogether and force Smalls to cop a plea. It turns out, he did.

On 11 January 1996, the New York Times (and, I later discovered, the Daily News, too) published a brief report on the hoax. “Smalls’s” real name was Raymond Sanabria, then 31, and he’d been in Rikers since January 1995 for robbing a Bronx bodega in September 1992. He had pretended he was a cop, with a badge and a gun as props, and told the store-owners he had to inspect their cash register! He “inspected” the cash right into his own pocket. The jail-house con artist had also done a stint in a Louisiana pen for pulling the same scheme from a jail there. He was looking at up to 25 years in jail for the bodega job and was now facing charges of grand larceny and criminal impersonation which could cost him another 80 years if he went to trial and was convicted. There’s apparently no additional penalty for chutzpah.

Sanabria, according to the newspapers, scammed more than 10 people from May to September 1995 for a total of $23,000. The police had recovered only $4,000 of the money, which had included $1,700 from an 88-year-old mother who took the cash from her ATM to bail out her son--who, of course, had never been arrested in the first place. Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau, retiring at the end of this year after 34 years in office, described Sanabria as “extremely ingenious” and remarked, “He could even have been a successful trial lawyer.” “If this guy had been a salesman,” suggested Patrick Kelleher, then chief of NYPD’s internal affairs bureau, “he’d be a millionaire a million times over.” Sanabria was such a smooth talker, in fact, that when he dialed a wrong number one time, he convinced the woman who answered the phone to begin a telephone romance with him. A year later, Sanabria and the young woman got married in the Rikers Island chapel. Evelyn, then 18, was looking at joining her bridegroom in jail because she was indicted as one of his accomplices. (I never learned the details of how Sanabria ran his con in jail, but Evelyn may have been the secretary whose voice I heard on the line that one time. I can only guess he had a recording of some office dialogue, including a receptionist, that he could play over the pay phones to juice up his con. It’s pretty elaborate, but I can’t figure out how else Sanabria could have pulled it off.)

And that was my brush with the criminal justice system, not counting jury duty. I have a friend who’s a criminal defense attorney, but I’ve never even met a DA before or been called upon to give testimony in a court for any reason. The only cops I ever dealt with, aside from traffic tickets, were army CID when I was an intel officer. So, this was my one and only so far.

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