Big Phat Liar
How a federal inmate duped the Los Angeles Times, fabricated FBI reports, and linked Sean "Diddy" Combs to 1994 ambush of Tupac Shakur
MARCH 26--Last week's bombshell Los Angeles Times report claiming that the 1994 shooting of Tupac Shakur in the lobby of a Manhattan recording studio was carried out by associates of Sean "Diddy" Combs and that the rap impresario knew of the plot beforehand was based largely on fabricated FBI reports, The Smoking Gun has learned.
The Times appears to have been hoaxed by an imprisoned con man and accomplished document forger, an audacious swindler who has created a fantasy world in which he managed hip-hop luminaries, conducted business with Combs, Shakur, Busta Rhymes, and The Notorious B.I.G., and even served as Combs's trusted emissary to Death Row Records boss Marion "Suge" Knight during the outset of hostilities in the bloody East Coast-West Coast rap feud.
The con man, James Sabatino, 31, has long sought to insinuate himself, after the fact, in a series of important hip-hop events, from Shakur's shooting to the murder of The Notorious B.I.G.. In fact, however, Sabatino was little more than a rap devotee, a wildly impulsive, overweight white kid from Florida whose own father once described him in a letter to a federal judge as "a disturbed young man who needed attention like a drug." Sabatino is pictured in the above mug shot.
The Times story, which was first posted online March 17 and then appeared in the newspaper itself last Wednesday, relied on "FBI records recently obtained by The Times" and interviews with several unnamed sources in its reexamination of the November 30, 1994 shooting of Shakur at Quad Studios near Times Square. Included in the paper's online package was a PDF of two key FBI interview reports cited in the 2800-word story, which was six months in the making and written by veteran reporter Chuck Philips, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for his coverage of corruption in the entertainment industry.
In addition to the documents posted on the Times site, a third purported FBI interview report was included by Sabatino in court papers he filed four months ago in U.S. District Court in Miami. In that civil case, Sabatino is suing Combs for $16 million over an alleged soured business deal from nearly a decade ago. According to Sabatino's complaint, which he prepared and filed himself from the Allenwood federal penitentiary in White Deer, Pennsylvania, Combs stiffed him on a $175,000 payment for audio and video recordings Sabatino made in 1994 of The Notorious B.I.G. (real name: Christopher Wallace).
But those FBI reports, dubbed "302s" due to the numbered government form on which they are prepared, are nowhere to be found in the bureau's computerized Automated Case Support database, TSG has learned. The ACS system allows investigators to search various bureau indices to determine whether particular individuals, groups, or topics have been referred to in FBI "302" reports or various other bureau documents.
The suspect documents contain information supposedly provided to agents in the FBI's New York office by an unnamed "confidential source." The records, which Sabatino himself has distributed, conveniently contain black redaction marks covering up the name of the agent (or agents) who prepared the "302s" as well as the corresponding FBI case number. However, since the documents are filled with the names of individuals and corporations, they can be tracked within the FBI system by working backwards (by subjects as opposed to case number or agent name).
And while Sabatino claims to have been provided the FBI reports during the discovery phase of a 2002 criminal case, a federal law enforcement official involved in that successful prosecution told TSG that the probe was headed by Secret Service representatives and that the FBI had no role whatsoever in the case. The official added that, at the time, investigators "had no inkling" of Sabatino's supposed role in the rap music world and never saw investigative reports detailing his purported involvement with hip-hop's leading figures or its assorted bloody disputes.
Additionally, an examination of the three documents revealed that the bodies of the respective "302s" were actually created on a typewriter (the "frame" of the reports is consistent with an authentic "302" template). In some instances, you can see where one letter was typed on top of an existing character, a so-called overstrike. In an interview, Bruce Mouw, a former FBI supervisor who headed the bureau's pursuit of John Gotti, estimated that agents ceased using typewriters about 30 years ago.
Riddled with spelling and grammatical errors, the purported "302" documents vary sharply from standard FBI reports in terms of phraseology and use of certain acronyms, according to several law enforcement sources who examined the documents at TSG's request.
For example, the reports contain the acronyms "TNU," which apparently is short for "true name unknown," and "NFI," short for "no further information." Two ex-FBI agents said that they had never seen those acronyms in bureau reports. Both men also alerted to how the reports were dated, with month, day, and year set off with periods, instead of the customary slashes.
Most telling, though, are the obvious similarities (type size, font, line spacing, individual character renderings) between the purported "302s" and certain court filings created by Sabatino while he has been incarcerated at Allenwood (he was transferred last May from a Florida prison to the high-security penitentiary in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains). As with all other Bureau of Prisons (BoP) facilities, Allenwood provides inmates with access to photocopying machines, office supplies, and typewriters, according to the BoP's 2008 Legal Resource Guide. Inmates, the guide states, are "permitted a reasonable amount of time...to conduct their own legal research and to prepare legal documents."
A comparison of the "302s" and Sabatino's own court filings shows that the authors of each set of documents share remarkably similar spelling deficiencies. For instance, the word "making" appears as "makeing" in both the "302s" and Sabatino's pro se court pleadings. Similarly, the authors also have difficulty with the word "during." It appears as "durring" in both sets of documents.
While a federal judge once referred to Sabatino as "articulate" and "an extraordinarily intelligent man," spelling and grammar are not strong suits for the ninth-grade dropout. And typewriters, of course, do not offer spell check.
After a reporter provided Philips and Marc Duvoisin, the deputy managing editor who edited the Times story, an account of TSG's findings, Duvoisin said that the newspaper would launch its own investigation to determine if the FBI documents cited in its story are real.
In response to a TSG interview request, Sabatino wrote a March 20 letter stating that "there is a lot of lies cirulating arround right now. But this is all going to backfire on Puff. I know him too well." As a result of the Times story, Sabatino wrote that he has been "receiving letters from all over the country. Reporters and regular people alike." While he offered to call a reporter and talk "off-the-record," Sabatino had not been heard from at press time.
The "302s" in question also carry redaction marks on a "government exhibit" sticker seen in the upper right corner of the opening pages of the three FBI reports. On the documents filed by Sabatino in his lawsuit against Combs, the number "3500" remains visible on the stickers, indicating that the material was turned over during the discovery phase of a criminal trial ("3500" refers to the section of the United States Code which entitles a defendant to receive prosecution records that could be used to impeach a trial witness). For some reason, when the Times posted the FBI reports on its web site, the paper itself covered up the "3500" reference on the documents.
The first mention of the existence of the purported "302s" came in filings Sabatino made late last year in a civil lawsuit against Combs. According to the convict, he received the explosive "302s" during "discovery, trial, and other proceedings" in a federal fraud prosecution brought against him in New York in August 2002. That case, though, never went to trial. Sabatino pleaded guilty to two felonies in August 2003 and was sentenced to more than 11 years in prison.
While he described the contents of four separate "302s" in his court papers, Sabatino attached only two of those reports to a November court motion. One of those documents was posted on the Times web site, along with another report that was referred to in Sabatino's filings, but not included as an exhibit. So, between Sabatino and the Times, three of the four purported FBI reports have been made public (those documents can be found here, here, and here). Details from the fourth supposed "302," dated July 1, 2002, are included in recent Sabatino court filings.
Notably, the convicted felon publicly filed the two "confidential" FBI records as exhibits to a motion seeking a court order barring Combs from distributing the documents to journalists. The bizarre motion surfaced six weeks after Sabatino filed his original October 4 complaint, which made no mention of "302s," Shakur, or any confidential FBI source. But that document does contain some of Sabatino's traditional flights from reality.
Along with claiming that he had been promised a "creative consultant" credit on Wallace's posthumous album "Born Again," Sabatino charged that Combs had delayed paying off his outstanding $175,000 debt because, in late-1998, "it was reported that the Los Angeles police had named [Sabatino] a 'person of interest' in the murder of Christopher Wallace," according to a December 6 court filing.
Of course, no news reports back this claim.
Sabatino then goes on to contend that this 1998 "theory" originates from an FBI "302" reporting that he was to meet Wallace on the night of his murder, "but never showed up." This purported "302," which Sabatino supposedly got in discovery, is further described by Sabatino in a court complaint: "The report goes on to say that prior to Mr. Wallace's murder [Sabatino] had contact with a 'close associate' of Marion 'Suge' Knight, a long time suspect in the murder of Mr. Wallace."
This story, not surprisingly, has a couple of structural deficiencies:
While the Sabatino-clipped-B.I.G. claim supposedly surfaced in 1998 when he was named a "person of interest," the "302" from which he says this "theory" originated would not be generated for another four years. Sometimes, when you're rewriting history on the fly, it's hard to maintain temporal continuity.
And then there's the small matter of Sabatino's whereabouts on March 9, 1997, when Wallace was gunned down while seated in a GMC Suburban outside the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. While he enjoys repeating the "theory" that he mysteriously bailed on a planned meeting with the rapper that fateful night, Sabatino was actually 2400 miles away from the crime scene. He was imprisoned in Miami's Federal Detention Center, where he still had six months to serve on a two-year sentence for separate felony convictions.
It is not Bureau of Prisons policy to allow cross-country furloughs. Even to attend the Soul Train Music Awards.
In his lawsuit against Combs, Sabatino denied prior knowledge of the plot to ambush Shakur, but added that he "does not contest that he was present at Quad Studios" on the night of the shooting. However, in the reams of copy about the 1994 attack, Sabatino's name has never appeared anywhere. The first time a publication linked him to the Shakur ambush came last week in the Times, thanks to one of the FBI "302s" obtained by the country's fourth-largest newspaper.
The New York Police Department probe of the Quad Studios incident was headed by Detective Joseph Babnik, who worked robbery cases out of the Midtown North precinct. In an interview, Babnik, now retired, told TSG that Sabatino's name "does not ring a bell" and that he could not recall anyone with that surname being connected to the Shakur case. Asked if he would have recalled a rotund white teenager being present at Quad Studios that night, Babnik said yes, adding that the only white witnesses he recalled interviewing were employed in technical capacities at the recording studio.
Shakur, who never hesitated to point fingers at those he suspected of setting up the Quad Studios shooting, never once mentioned Sabatino's supposed role in the attack.
In a three-page "302" dated December 30, 2002, the FBI's supposed confidential source reported first meeting Shakur through Sabatino in late-1993. Sabatino, born October 24, 1976, would have been 16 or 17 at the time of the Shakur introduction. The source went on to report that in February 1994, the 17-year-old Sabatino was rebuffed by Shakur when the teenager spoke to the performer about a "business offer." In short order, Sabatino and an associate devised a plan to "set up" the disrespectful Shakur, whom they decided needed to be "dealt with."
This scenario, though preposterous on its face, was unblinkingly reported by the Times, which cited the FBI "302s" and sources who supported the account provided by the bureau's unnamed confidential source. And while the Times story noted that Sabatino "declined to comment," there can be little doubt that he was one of the unnamed sources confirming details found in the "302" reports (a nifty parlor trick by the maypole around which the Quad Studios story rotates).
But the most curious part of the Times story, however, involves the paper's reporting that it had learned the identity of the confidential source quoted in the "302s" and "verified that he was at the Quad on the night of the assault." The report continued, "When contacted, the man said the FBI records accurately convey what happened, and what he told investigators." The source, the Times added, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The "302" purportedly describing the behind-the-scenes machinations leading up to Shakur's assault also includes a narrative flourish that somehow escaped prior investigative or journalistic excavation. As has been widely reported, after Shakur was shot in the lobby of the Seventh Avenue building, he stumbled into an elevator and headed upstairs. When the elevator doors opened on a floor where members of the Combs entourage were milling about, a bleeding Shakur exited. Sabatino, the FBI source claimed, responded by yelling, "Get that piece of shit out of here!" Though the agent who authored the report (you know, the one whose name was conveniently redacted) actually spelled the third word in that sentence "peice."
Coincidentally, an examination of Sabatino's court filings shows that he, too, has a pronounced difficulty spelling words with the i-e and e-i couplings. He and the unnamed FBI agent apparently never memorized the old "i before e except after c" mnemonic device.
Court records show that the teenage Sabatino was living with his father in Boynton Beach, Florida around the time of the November 1994 Shakur shooting. In fact, a 1999 profile ("Con Kid") of Sabatino in Miami New Times opens with a scene from early-November 1994 in Florida. Sabatino, then 18, is masquerading as a Sony Music executive and palling around backstage with Julio Iglesias at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts.
Another "302," which Sabatino included as a motion exhibit in his Combs lawsuit, quotes the FBI's confidential source as saying that they met Combs through Sabatino in late-1991. At the time, Sabatino would have been only 14 or 15. Amazingly, such precociousness on his part went unremarked upon (or unnoticed) by the entertainment press. And to think, just years earlier, music journalists were falling all over themselves to chronicle how Rick Rubin, a relative graybeard at 21, was co-founding Def Jam from his room at NYU's Weinstein dormitory.
In fact, according to a suspect December 30, 2002 FBI report, the confidential source said that Combs even enlisted Sabatino, 18 at the time, to serve as his envoy to "broker a 'peace agreement'" between Combs's firm, Bad Boy Entertainment, and Suge Knight's Death Row Records. Sabatino, apparently the James Baker of b-boys, was sent West because, the FBI source noted, Combs felt he "would hold a little influence over Knight due to Sabatino's father, Peter Sabatino, a/k/a Fat Pete, a member of the Colombo crime family and his relationship with a individual in Las Vegas (NFI)."
After meeting with Knight in California, Sabatino reportedly told the source that the "situation" was resolved, apparently due to the teenager's efforts. But when problems resurfaced later, "the source stated that Sabatino told him that it was all Combs fault and that Combs did not do what he said he would." Here, the negligent FBI agent authoring the report made the mistake of identifying the confidential source's gender through the careless use of the pronoun "him," thus narrowing the field of informant possibilities by half.
As for the claim that Sabatino's father was (or is) a gangster, that is directly contradicted by NYPD and FBI lists of Colombo family members, other FBI documents obtained by TSG, and law enforcement personnel interviewed for this story. The elder Sabatino has worked as the manager of a Florida restaurant. It was his son who gave him his button.
[Since the early-90s, a series of high-ranking Colombo crime family members and associates have defected and began cooperating with federal agents. TSG has in excess of 750 pages of FBI reports of its debriefings with nine of these turncoats. Nowhere in these documents is Sabatino or his father mentioned. A typical report--yes, on an authentic "302" with a government exhibit sticker--can be found here. It records an interview with former consigliere Carmine Sessa, who identifies all the family's captains and the soldiers in their respective crews.]
In November 2003, when Sabatino appeared for sentencing in federal court in White Plains, N.Y., his attorney, Mary Anne Wirth, stressed to Judge Charles Brieant that reports that the Sabatinos were somehow tied to organized crime were "utterly untrue." James, the lawyer added, went to great lengths to dispel this wiseguy myth for his probation officer.
While hip-hop chroniclers have never recorded Sabatino's 1995 shuttle diplomacy on Combs's behalf, The New York Times Magazine did report in January 1996 that Combs sent Mustafa Farrakhan to speak with Knight (who refused to meet with the Bad Boy agent). Perhaps Death Row's boss just preferred negotiating with a 5' 5", 220-pound Italian-American kid rather than Nation of Islam head Louis Farrakhan's son.
In court papers, Sabatino has claimed that he originally shared the FBI "302s" with Combs after receiving them during discovery, but extracted a promise that the documents would not be distributed further.
He gave Combs the records, Sabatino explained, because the FBI's confidential source provided agents with details about the music industry power and Bad Boy Entertainment. This was a particularly magnanimous gesture on the imprisoned Sabatino's part since his own lawsuit claims that Combs has owed him $175,000 since 1998.
But instead of keeping the "302s" under wraps, Sabatino charged, Combs recently provided them to a "so called 'investigative reporter'" and a businessman with whom Sabatino was negotiating a lucrative deal. According to Sabatino's curious reasoning, Combs gave the FBI documents to the journalist (presumably Philips) in a bid to focus the reporter's attention away from him and onto Sabatino when it came to exposing criminal conduct on the pair's part. And Combs supposedly delivered the documents to the businessman to torpedo Sabatino's pending $100,000 consulting contract.
The Times reported that Sabatino told Combs and Wallace beforehand about the plot to ambush Shakur at Quad Studios, and that talent manager Jimmy Rosemond, working with Sabatino, was an architect of the assault. Shakur was shot several times during the 1994 attack and was robbed of his jewelry, which reportedly included a $40,000 gold medallion. After the Times story was published, Combs and Rosemond issued statements attacking the paper's reporting and vehemently denied orchestrating the attack on Shakur or knowing about it ahead of time.
It appears that the real purpose of the suspect "302s" is to portray Sabatino as a feared hip-hop figure who muscled and conned rappers into deals. The entertainers were drawn to him "because he is a member of La Cosa Nostra" and such Mafia ties were "glamorized in the Hip Hop world," reported the confidential source. The documents Sabatino supposedly did not want disseminated--but which he himself filed publicly--conferred upon him the kind of rap world status that he has long coveted.
Sabatino has frequently claimed to have managed a number of leading hip-hop acts, including Notorious B.I.G., Lords of the Underground, and Heavy D and the Boyz. Du Kelly, a member of Lords of the Underground, described Sabatino as a "scam artist" who briefly tried to befriend the group's manager. Kelly said that he recalled Sabatino as a "short, Caucasian, little chubby fat guy" whose "father was supposed to be Mafia or something." Sabatino was "just a con artist who tried to get close to artists, but he was a nobody," said Kelly. He added that Sabatino also tried to get near the Wu-Tang Clan, "but I heard they beat him up."
Sabatino's convoluted and bizarre motion to gag Combs, of course, was immediately denied. Judge Stephen T. Brown ruled that the federal inmate's request was moot since the "allegedly confidential documents...are attached to this motion as exhibits." While the prodigious jailhouse litigant surely expected this defeat, he succeeded in drawing attention to the Combs lawsuit, the "302s," and, of course, himself.
But unlike Sabatino's own prior outlandish and unsupported claims about his entertainment industry resume (he once said he regularly consulted with music industry legend Clive Davis and even co-produced Combs's 1997 album "No Way Out"), the information about him in the "302s" came with the shiny imprimatur of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its valuable confidential source, who, the documents noted, "is in a position to testify."
And now The Los Angeles Times has added to the myth, describing "promoter James Sabatino" as a Tupac Shakur antagonist who toured with The Notorious B.I.G. and "became a fixture in Combs's circle...helping him stage lavish parties and land corporate sponsorships."
While Sabatino's "302" gambit might seem inexplicable, especially for someone already in prison (he has a November 2012 release date), it appears fairly typical for a man who has spent most of his adult life behind bars and appears to have little impulse control.
His adult rap sheet includes more that a dozen convictions, beginning with a 1994 credit card collar in Virginia when he was 17. Back then, Sabatino was arrested for using an American Express card issued to Coca-Cola. He quickly became adept at assuming the identities of others as he swindled all kinds of goods from marks he either sweet-talked or duped with forged documents. And he was frequently arrested.
Alternately posing as an executive with companies like Blockbuster, Paramount Pictures, Sony Music, Warner Bros., Viacom, and the Miami Dolphins, Sabatino conned dozens of firms out of an assortment of merchandise, including computers, pagers, phones, hotel accommodations, limousine rides, and even 262 tickets to the January 1995 Super Bowl. He regularly passed bad checks and skipped out on bills. The football ticket theft prompted one police official to remark, "This kid is a scammer. He is a smooth talker and can talk you out of your clothes before you even realize it."
In an October 2003 letter to a federal judge preparing to sentence his son on fraud and identity theft counts, Peter Sabatino recalled that James was a successful child model whose mother, an unknown B-movie actress, "projected all of her dreams of fame and fortune onto her son." When James was 11, Peter wrote, the boy's mother left home, never to come back. "Shortly thereafter, I received a call from James' teacher that James had told her his mother had died in a car accident. Obviously this wasn't true but was his way of resolving the matter in his head and his heart."
From that point, James's behavior spiraled out of control and he was "expelled from twelve different schools, parochial, private and finally public." At one point he even spent 30 days in a psychiatric facility. The only thing that calmed James, his father wrote, was long hours in front of the television, where the boy would "anxiously wait for the credits and write down the names of producers, directors and others that he felt were influential in the production. He then began to assume what he perceived was the persona of these individuals." Soon, James realized that, "by calling restaurants, hotels, theatres, and other businesses using their names he could go anywhere he desired," Peter stated.
"However, these situations usually ended with me receiving a call to go to wherever he was and pay whatever bill he had run up or they would have him arrested. Like any loving father, I would come to his rescue. Eventually, the calls stopped."
In late-1997, after finishing a two-year state sentence in Florida, Sabatino was arrested in New York City for defrauding the Marriott Marquis hotel. While on bail, he traveled to London and got arrested again, this time for ripping off the Four Seasons hotel. Sabatino, then 22, had been a free man for all of four months when he was jailed in a Brixton prison. He has been in custody ever since.
Apparently believing that he could not last six months in the harsh English prison, Sabatino hatched a plot to speed his return to America. From a prison phone, he began calling the U.S. to make death threats against President Bill Clinton and various federal prosecutors, judges, and agents. He even threatened to blow up the federal courthouse in Ft. Lauderdale. The harebrained scheme, of course, backfired. After serving his entire Brixton prison term, Sabatino was arrested for the various phone threats.
He was returned to Florida, where he immediately assaulted a federal prison guard and, as a result, was hit with a new felony indictment. Sabatino would subsequently receive a 51-month prison sentence covering those two cases. Internal BoP records show that Sabatino has been a remarkably unruly inmate, having been disciplined on about 30 occasions through May 2007. He has often been punished for refusing to obey orders, interfering with security devices, threatening bodily harm, assault, and weapons possession. During one fight, Sabatino stabbed another inmate with a sharpened piece of metal. The dispute, the victim told authorities, occurred when Sabatino refused to pay off a winning numbers ticket.
In August 2002, with Sabatino months away from being freed, Secret Service agents raided his cell at the Westchester County jail in Valhalla, N.Y.. Investigators carted away evidence showing that he had spent the prior six months using jail phones to defraud Nextel out of more than 1000 cell phones. Sabatino worked with a raggedy group of accomplices--most of whom he never met--and defrauded firms of upwards of $1 million. According to investigators, Sabatino, posing as different entertainment executives, called around the country and arranged to have large cell phone shipments delivered to his footmen.
His cut was less than $8000, which was placed into his commissary account by a stripper/coconspirator named Marcy who visited him in jail and claimed to be his wife. On his cell walls Sabatino kept photos of his criminal cohorts and their children. Stacked elsewhere in the cell were his collections of Playboy and Maxim, assorted legal filings (for both his cases and matters for which he was not a party), forged memos on the letterhead of businesses ensnared in his phone scam, and a signed, but otherwise blank, federal court subpoena.
Sabatino pleaded guilty in August 2003 to felony fraud and identity theft charges. Addressing the court before his sentencing, Sabatino apologized for the illegal scheme and said, "I know this may sound strange, but there is a part of me that just does these type of things and I can't control it. It's like a fight within myself sometime...I have been battling this demon for a very long time." He added, "I really had only one motivation for this crime, to make attention to myself and to make other people happy and for me to be the cause of that happiness."
Presciently, Judge Brieant then remarked that Sabatino was an adult who "seems to have acted...out of a need for attention." He added, "I have real concern about whether this need for attention will ever go away and therefore the impulse to commit these sorts of crimes."
As Sabatino has recently sought to place himself in the limelight via his tall rap tales, he appears to be receiving assistance from beyond Allenwood's walls. When he filed his legal action against Combs, an Associated Press report identified one "Renee Morrison" as the spokesperson for Sabatino's "Florida-based company, Sound Storm Entertainment."
According to a January letter from an Allenwood unit manager, Sabatino regularly gets in excess of $2000 deposited into his commissary account, a "sizable amount" for a federal inmate. But despite being flush, he files grievances when BoP officials seek to increase the $25 monthly he must pay toward financial penalties levied from his most recent conviction.
Last year, he even launched a MySpace page, which is apparently run by "Rene Morrison," who responded to an e-mail sent last week by a TSG reporter. On his page, Sabatino writes about a new female singer, Timarie, for whom he is trying to secure a "leading major recording deal." He also provides some fantastical new biographical details, including the claim that he worked as a "rodie" on a New Kids on the Block world tour (he would have been about 15). Oh, and he "befriended Mark Wahlberg and went on to help cultivate his rap career."
And just in case his lawsuit against Combs, the phony FBI "302s," or last week's Los Angeles Times story left any doubt, Sabatino is once again looking for a little attention. The headline on his MySpace page makes that clear:
"Back In Action," it announces.