Published on April 2, 2013,

Phenom to Felon

Frabizio’s Drug-Fueled Bank Heists

Phenom to Felon Hero

By Pat Jordan

He was a golden child, blessed with beauty, talent, charm, and an adoring family, smothering and indulgent, which assured him at an early age that he was destined to live the fairytale life that is the birthright of an Italian Prince. And he has, a fairytale life scripted by The Brothers Grimm.

He grew up in West Islip, Long Island, in a “typical” Italian family that was comfortably well-off, thanks to his father’s Italian restaurants. His sister, Gina, came first. Three years later, he was born. Gina was the smart one; he was the intellectually lazy one who admits he didn’t apply himself because he didn’t have to. “I was the spoiled Italian Prince,” he says. “Privileged. I had the most expensive stuff. My mother never let anyone in the family watch me when I was three. I could do no wrong in her eyes. But not my sister.”

He describes his father as “laid back, a pushover, who encouraged me to follow my dreams.” But it was his mother who determined what those dreams were. Her earliest visions for her son focused on his beauty. She was always taking hundreds of photos of him on special occasions, like Christmas, “until she got it just right.” When he was 3 she started him on a modeling career. Big Wheels toys, Crest toothpaste, little boy’s tights. “By the time I was four and five,” he says, “I was the best. I liked showing off. It was exciting.” 

His audience was his big extended Italian family. Adults looked at him with glassy eyes and wistful smiles. The old people, the Nonnas and Nonnos, pinched his cheeks and said, “Quando bello de faccia!” He says, “Everyone in our family was great. It was like ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’, my grandma yelling at my grandpa. Nobody ever got divorced. We were all together every night. We did everything together; we Christmas shopped for a month, like this herd in and out of stores. On Christmas Eve my mom cooked seafood from my dad’s restaurants. Calamari, shrimp, crab legs. It was always fish on Christmas Eve.”

In high school, he was 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, handsome, a star. He swam, played baseball, football, basketball. “I had a 42-inch vertical leap,” he says. Sports had always come easy to him. Girls, too. He was a Leo DiCaprio without the will to play the ordinary man.  Vito exulted in his blessings, as if entitled, like a dauphin.  “My two loves were girls and baseball,” he says. He got in fights with other boys, not so blessed, who were jealous of his easy talent and easy charm. He began to “butt heads with my mother, too,” he says.

He brought girls home to introduce to his mother. She’d say, “I don’t like her.” He’d say, “But I like her.” She’d say, “But I don’t like her.”

“Still,” he says of his mother, “I love her to death.” After all, she had given him his dreams, even if they were not concrete dreams, to be a doctor or a lawyer, whatever. His dream was amorphous, the dream of a child. “To be beyond successful,” he says. “My friends worked in McDonalds, but that was not for me. People who knew me knew I’d be a millionaire.”

But how would he fulfill the dream? That’s the part he never considered. He had no plan, no course of action, no understanding of cause and effect. He just assumed his dreams would be fulfilled.

An Orioles’ Hope

Vito Frabizio is 23 now. In 2009, when he was 19, the Baltimore Orioles signed him to a $130,000 bonus. “I was the best pitcher in the Orioles’ minor leagues,” he says. “Scotty McGregor (former O’s pitcher) told me I’d win the Cy Young Award one day.” He looks around, and then back at me, adding, “I’d always been in the right place at the right time. Now I’m here, the lowest of the low.”

Vito is sitting behind bars in the visiting room of the Yaphank, Long Island, minimum security prison on a fall day. The visiting room is crowded with men in green prison jumpsuits talking to women, some of them in low-cut blouses, who lean over to remind their men of what waits for them when they get out. The guards have put Vito in the far corner of the room so he can talk to me with a little privacy through the bars. He grips the bars with both hands and says, “The other prisoners can’t believe it. ‘You played baseball and robbed banks? Why?’” Actually, Vito robbed three banks to support his 20-bag, $200-a-day heroin habit.

Even in his prison-issued jumpsuit, with white socks and flip-flops that slapped against the floor when he walked toward me with that slouching, hangdog shuffle of prison cons, Vito is still a good-looking man. Just not that good-looking anymore. He has a jailhouse pallor — he’s been incarcerated for two years at this point — with the blemished skin of a needle junkie and tattoos, which can be seen in  his police mug shots. There’s a naked woman in flames on his upper left arm. A heart and a cross adorn his upper right (throwing) arm. A Burmese python suffocates a tiger on his stomach. The word “Hollywood” is scrawled across his upper back. “I always had to be the center of attention,” he tells me. “The most popular. Class clown. Even in here I make people laugh so the time goes easier.” He also amuses them with glimpses of his pitching prowess of two years ago. He wets paper, molds it into a ball, and puts a sock over it, then shows his fellow cons his pitching motion. “Until the guards take the ball away,” he says. “Then I make another.”

Vito’s lost weight in prison: 60 pounds when he first detoxed in rehab. He tells me kicking heroin was just like it was depicted in the 1950s movie, “The Man With the Golden Arm.” “You throw up,” Vito says, “you can’t eat, sleep, you get the shakes, cold sweats, migraines. It lasts a week. But I’ve been clean 16 months now. I’m not even thinking of drugs anymore. But the other night, for the first time, I dreamed about taking drugs again. When I woke up, I was relieved.”

You throw up. You can’t eat, sleep, you get the shakes, cold sweats, migraines. It lasts a week. But I’ve been clean for 16 months now. I’m not even thinking of drugs anymore. But the other night, for the first time, I dreamed about taking drugs again. When I woke up, I was relieved.

He’s starting to put on weight again, too. But it’s hard, he says, with prison food. “They just throw barbecue sauce on spaghetti,” he says, grinning. He misses his mother’s Christmas Eve feasts. She visits him maybe once a week. But every time his parents and grandparents look at him in prison, and see only his lost promise, they “begin to bawl,” he says. I tell him I called his mother once. She didn’t want to talk to me, other than to ask if I thought her son could resume his baseball career after he got out of prison. I told her, “Sure, if he can throw a baseball 95 miles per hour.” Then I told her I wanted to interview her son. She said, “No, I won’t allow him to talk to you.” I blurted out, “But he’s 23 years old!” She hung up. I called her back 10 times and she refused to answer the phone. Vito shakes his head and says, “She’s tough. She told me she won’t be a part of any story because it’s too painful for her. She always thought everyone was out to get me. Everyone told me not to talk to you, my parents, my lawyer. But I can see The Big Picture.” He looks around at the other cons talking to their women. They are not like him. They have no future, no dreams. He says, “I’m very confident I haven’t got to my career plateau yet.”

I left Vito late at night and drove back to a restaurant near my hotel. I needed a double Jim Beam quick because Vito had depressed me out of my mind. His life had been my life years ago. I, too, was the special Italian son. Handsome, a talented baseball pitcher, always the center of attention, seductive to the girls, destined for greatness. After high school I was a $50,000 bonus baby (What an apt word!). I went off to the minor leagues to pursue my destiny. Three years later I was a failure, despairing, self-pitying, back home with no job, no education, no conceivable life that would matter. I was a mason laborer, a digger of ditches, a soda jerk. I pumped gas on the weekends. I was without ego, without hope, without a vision for a better life. A not uncommon story among failed athletes. What would we be without sport? How in the world could we make a productive life out of nothing? Starting over again at 23, with a wife and children? It was amazing any of us ever made new lives. But some of us did. Why? Why us, and not the others whose lives self-destructed?

The Vicodin Fix

 After Vito signed with the Orioles, without graduating from high school, he was sent to Florida’s Rookie Gulf Coast League where, he says, “I was an All-Star and the league’s Pitcher of the Year.” Which is hard to believe, considering his record. Three wins, four losses, 5.93 era, 64 hits in 41 innings. He was 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, with a 92-mph fastball. “I was a finesse pitcher who threw hard,” he says. “I could lull you to sleep and then pound you inside with a fastball.”

He pitched marginally better in his second season with Bluefield, VA. In the rookie-class Appalachian League, he had a 4-4 record, 2.96 era, 57 hits in 70 innings. He always had excellent control for a young pitcher, walking only 16 batters while striking out 64. A glance at his 2009 stats reveals a real prospect now with a potential to become a decent major league pitcher, with hard work and a strong will. Then he showed up at spring training in Sarasota, Fla., in 2010 weighing 205 pounds. His fastball was now clocked at 96 mph, approaching superstar potential. He says the Orioles planned to jump him from the rookie league to Double-A ball that year. And then, one sunny afternoon in Florida, he threw a ball “and it came out of my hand with nothing on it,” he says. “I felt no pain until I tried to do rotator cuff exercises.” The Orioles’ doctors diagnosed his injury as a strained labrum, the cartilage around his shoulder joint. They told him he didn’t need surgery, just rest and medication.

“It was off to the races with painkillers,” he says. “Vicodin, Percocets, morphine pills.” At first he took those pills as prescribed: only after a full meal. They had no real effect on him until one day a teammate offered to buy his pills. “I said, ‘Why?’” Vito says. “He said, ‘Because they’re so-o-o good.’ Then he showed me how to crush them into a powder and sniff them to get high. He’s in the big leagues now, and those pills became the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

Once Vito got hooked on pills he stopped working out diligently and spent his time with his new drug buddy at the beach, getting high. When they ran out of the Orioles’ prescribed pills, they bought them on the street at $30 per pill. “That sore arm was the first time I ever failed,” Vito says. It jarred him, left him bewildered. Failure didn’t drive him to succeed; it unmoored him. “It was an uncomfortable feeling, to fail,” Vito says. “I felt alone, so I used drugs to get rid of that uncomfortable feeling. I gave up on myself and threw it all away.” At the time, he felt he deserved those drugs. He was discouraged. Self-pitying. Without will. He felt the Orioles “weren’t giving me enough time” to let his shoulder heal. After a few weeks they “pushed me back on the mound again,” he says. “I threw one inning in pain and that was the last I ever pitched.”

The Orioles released him 30 days after he’d hurt his shoulder. By then, “the coaches were making me feel like an outcast because I was hurt,” he says. “On the day the Orioles released me I was crying. I couldn’t understand why they ran me out the door so fast. They didn’t know about my drugs, and if they did, they didn’t tell me.” If the Orioles knew about his drugs, they probably wanted to distance themselves and their young players as quickly as possible from a guy they considered a bad seed. When I called the Orioles to ask if this was true, no one would talk to me about Vito Frabizio, not even their owner, Peter Angelos. It was as if Vito Frabizio had never been a part of their organization.

After Vito was released, he stayed in South Florida, living the life of a drug addict and hustler. “I got drunk and did pills non-stop,” he says. “They got me outside my body so I didn’t think of myself as a screwball. Pills made me feel nice to people, made me forget that I could think of nothing to be without baseball. They made me feel important, like when I was a pitcher. You’ve got to understand, a drug life is exciting. The drug becomes your girlfriend. You’re not interested in sex. A girl couldn’t pry me off the couch for sex. I’d just do my pills and play XBox until one day I realized I wasn’t even playing XBox, I was just sitting there, stoned, doing nothing, by myself. That’s when I knew I had a problem.”

In late June of 2010, Vito went back to Deer Park, Long Island, to live with his parents and “get clean.” He told them he was addicted to pills. His father didn’t believe it. His mother just kept repeating, “Are you sure, are you sure, are you sure?” After a few days at his parents’ house, Vito went on the street, copped some pills, and “I was off to the races again.” But pills were more expensive on Long Island than in Florida. Soon Vito was running out of money to support his habit. A friend said he had something better and cheaper than pills. Vito snorted a white powder that suffused his entire body with a “relaxing high.” He claims he didn’t know he’d snorted heroin that first time — until later. Thus began Vito’s period of junkie denial. Over the next two years, Vito “The Star,” whom others had always followed, underwent a life-changing transformation. He had become the follower. He had let his baseball teammate teach him how to snort pills. He had let his friends on Long Island show him how to snort heroin, all the while claiming he was unaware of what he was doing or what the consequences could be — until it was too late.

When Vito finally told his parents he was snorting heroin, they immediately brought him to Nassau (County) University Medical Center. “I wanted to get clean bad,” Vito says. But not that badly. Instead of going through months of a long rehab regimen, Vito opted for the much easier five-day methadone treatment, and then was released. He claims he was clean from that November until January 2011, when he met Max.

Max Schneider was 6-foot-3 and skinny, with a tattoo of what appeared to be a laughing court jester on his upper left arm, as seen in a mug shot. Max was known by police to be a thief and an addict. Cops, prison, rehab was a way of life for Max —unlike Vito, the younger Vito, the Italian Prince version with so much potential.  “I met Max at my friend Tommy’s house,” Vito says. He shakes his head in despair. “He was the Bad Seed. A miserable downer. He talked about girls like they were objects.”

Vito claims that when he met Max he tried to be a good Samaritan and “get him off drugs”, but within a couple of days “he pulled me back down. He told me he knew I wasn’t ready to stop drugs so he gave me a Roxy (Roxicodone pill) and I was off to the races again. Within hours we had heroin. He always had heroin but he never worked. I asked him what he did for money. He told me he robbed banks. I thought it was like in the movies, you know, those bank robbers in black overcoats with old-fashioned fedora hats and Tommy guns.”

I thought it was like in the movies, you know, those bank robbers in black overcoats with old-fashioned fedora hats and Tommy guns.

Max told him robbing banks wasn’t like that anymore. He was a “note” bank robber. He’d learned his trade in drug rehab. One day, at group, another addict explained how he supported his habit by robbing banks. He said all you needed was a note saying you had a gun and the banks had to give you money. In January and February of 2011, Vito said he and his new best friend, Max, did heroin together. According to Vito, one day, when they were low on money, Max asked him to drive him to a TD Bank. Vito borrowed a friend’s car and parked outside the bank, waiting for Max. “He comes walking out nonchalantly with this evil grin, like he just made a deposit or something,” says Vito. They drove off and Max showed Vito “a pile of money,” he says. “I said, ‘Where’d you get it?’ He said he robbed the bank. I threw it back at him. I never knew he was gonna rob that first bank.”

To celebrate their score, they did heroin. Max told Vito he was wasting good heroin by snorting it rather than injecting it. Vito told him he’d never stick a needle in his arm. “So Max said, ‘I’ll do it for you,’” says Vito. “It was like a warm rush up my spine.” Within a few weeks, Vito was shooting 20 bags a day, all day long. He lost all will, didn’t care about anything, except his next fix. “Heroin simplifies your life,” Vito says. “Because it’s the only thing that matters. You wake up sick, call your dealer. If he doesn’t answer, you’re anxious, and then you get him and relax, and you score, and you shoot up 24 hours a day.”

Within two weeks they robbed two more banks: a TD Bank and a Bank of America, according to police reports. Max robbed one teller, 21 years old, who’d only been working at the bank for a week. Another teller, an older woman, followed him outside and chased him down the street as Max ran for his life.

Vito’s and Max’s modus operandi was always the same. Vito parked and waited in the car while Max went into the bank with his misspelled, barely legible notes: I have a gin in my pocket! Give ne all the loose bills in your draw. Do not make a sound and be very fast. Max had learned from his Internet searches to reject tightly bundled dye packs. However, he did not learn to spell. When he was arrested and shown one of his notes, he scrawled on it, “I spelt ‘draw’ wrong!”

Vito had no illusions now as to what he was doing with Max. He says, “It never hit me I was doing wrong until I was arrested. I didn’t care. I needed drugs to get me through the day.” Besides, there was an unreality about the whole enterprise, for Vito, at least. He borrowed a friend’s car, or Max’s mother’s car, and the two bank robbers went shopping as if going to a mall. Vito also justified his crimes by claiming Max never shared any of the money with him. He tells me, “He only gave me drugs. The risk and reward was not equal for me.”

One day Max burst into the house where Vito was living with his friend Tommy and told them a police helicopter was following him. Max was now a wanted man in seven bank robberies. Shortly afterward, on March 25, 2011, police acted on a tip that Max had boarded a Long Island Rail Road train in Huntington and began to trace his movements. After a search of all cars at the East New York stop, where no one was allowed off the train, Max was found and arrested in the restroom where he was shooting up heroin when the police burst in. Max was charged with seven counts of third-degree felony, non-violent bank robbery. At the same time, Vito had been arrested at Tommy’s house and was charged with three counts, along with misdemeanor possession of a controlled substance. Both claimed they never had a gun, and only robbed banks when they got “dope sick” because of their heroin addiction. But there were discrepancies in their confessions, according to records. Max claimed Vito was “his friend” and he was quick to tell the police that his friend “played minor-league baseball with the Baltimore Orioles.”  In one robbery Max even wore one of Vito’s t-shirts with “Blink If You Want Me” scrawled across the chest. It was as if Max, the born loser, was desperate to form a relationship beyond just drugs and crime with his new best friend, who was famous, at least once, in a way Max would never be.

Vito insists Max was never his friend, only a junkie and bank-robbing partner with a co-dependence on heroin. As far as Vito was concerned, it was Max who dragged him kicking and screaming into a needle heroin habit and a criminal career. He tells me, “I was never a follower. It shows how far down I went to follow Max. He reminded me of that kid from Colorado with the orange hair who shot those people in the theater. Evil.” It serves Vito’s purpose to label Max “Evil” and himself the one who was corrupted by Max. But in truth, Max seemed less Machiavellian than hapless, which was why his “friendship” with Vito made him feel less a loser. For Vito, Max was a scapegoat, his excuse to fail.

In Max’s confession to police, according to records, he claimed Vito agreed to rob the first bank and gave him a smaller split of the money. He stated that after the second robbery he gave Vito $1,000. Max then claimed that after the third he and Vito split $30,000 evenly because “it was Vito’s idea to demand (money) from the bottom drawer.” Vito’s version of his role in the robberies is decidedly different – and inconsistent.

Vito insists to me that he never got any money from those bank robberies, but in his confession he admitted that Max asked him to drive him to a bank for a robbery. “I agreed to,” Vito wrote. After their second robbery, Vito “asked him (Max) if he was going to give me anything (money) for driving but he said he hardly got anything.” After the third robbery, which Max claimed netted them $30,000, Vito wrote, “He told me he couldn’t give me much because he only got $3,000 so he gave me a bundle of heroin.”

Enter Billy Keahon, aka William J. Keahon, 69, of Keahon, Fleischer, Duncan & Ferrante, Attorneys at Law. Keahon is one of Long Island’s highest-priced and highest- profile defense attorneys, which is why Vito’s parents wanted him to defend their son. But, according to Vito, his parents had fallen on hard times lately. He tells me his father’s restaurants have lost business because now they are in “bad neighborhoods and my dad has to work all the time at his restaurants and at night as a maintenance man at a school.” So, his grandparents, who are more well off, put up Keahon’s fee of between $20,000 and $30,000, according to Vito.

Keahon is quite the flamboyant character in Long Island legal circles. He’s a handsome man in the manner of slick, old timey movie stars like Ronald Coleman. He even once sported a 1930s pencil thin moustache. Vito says that compared with other defense attorneys, “Keahon looks like a million dollars.” Another lawyer described Keahon outside a courthouse insouciantly smoking a Camel cigarette and “looking dapper in khakis and a blue and white gingham shirt,” as befits a man whose clients have been serial killers.

For over a year, I called Keahon maybe 30 times to ask him to talk about his client, Vito Frabizio. At first, he was receptive, then he became elusive, failing to return my calls. When I tell Vito this in jail, he laughs, and says, “He doesn’t return anyone’s calls. Not anyone in my family since we hired him. Other lawyers visit their clients in jail but I only saw him once in jail. He’s the only lawyer I know who won’t answer (his client’s) phone calls from jail.” A lawyer who knows Keahon well told me that at times Keahon can be “a hump.”

After Keahon got Vito bonded out of jail, he got a judge to remand him to a drug rehab facility in upstate New York. He convinced the judge that his client was more to be pitied as a heroin addict than feared as a bank robber. The judge sent Vito to Daytop Village Inc., with the understanding that if Vito successfully completed his rehab, the judge would take that into consideration when sentencing Vito for a non-violent bank robbery a year later.

Vito always felt that Keahon was more concerned about him like a father rather than a lawyer. “His objective was to get me clean,” Vito says. “He told me that when this is all over he wants me to be a lawyer for him.” Vito laughs, then adds, “The first thing he’ll teach me is not to answer the phone.”

At Daytop Village, and later at Phoenix House, Vito would learn many things, that he was arrogant, that he lacked self-esteem and that he had to learn how to be humble. In group and one-on-one sessions, “They call you out on your bullshit,” he says. He learned he was an obsessive-compulsive, that he wanted to be accepted by people, that his crimes and drug addiction had “taken away my identity as a baseball player,” he says. “And it was all my fault.”

Vito learned at rehab that his behavior had caused his problems, not other people’s behavior. But most importantly what Vito learned at rehab was how to use the jargon of rehab so that “I could always get out of trouble.” He learned how to con his counselors by telling them what they wanted to hear. At first, at Daytop, his con worked. His evaluation reports in June 2011, mentioned his “desires to go back to school to pursue his college education.” Of course, Vito did not mention that he had never graduated from high school. He also was learning “valuable office skills, building better penmanship skills” and how to “verbalize relapse prevention skills and address the issues (of) Substance Abuse, Criminal Thinking  and address Family issues with his mother.” He had even begun to “reflect on his negative behavior and sneaky behavior.” This was a reference to Vito’s having vanished from the facility for a few hours in August of 2011. Then he got into a fight with another resident, who Vito claims broke into his room “and stole some of my things.” That’s when he was kicked out of Daytop and again stood before a judge who had the power to send him to prison rather than rehab.

According to a witness at that hearing, Keahon told the judge, “My client is not the perfect client.” When Keahon finished pleading his client’s case, “the judge read Vito the riot act,” says the witness. “Vito began to cry. The judge told him to stop crying. ‘You’re making me sick, Mr. Frabizio.’” When Vito stopped crying the judge said, “Mr. Frabizio, I’m going to give you the opportunity of a lifetime.” He then sent Vito to a more secure rehab facility, Phoenix House in Suffolk County.

Vito liked Phoenix House because “it was a lot of laughs. I played catch with another resident and realized my shoulder no longer hurt.” He rekindled his dream of becoming a ballplayer again.  He kept a journal and began to write a book, which, he tells me, grew to more than 600 pages. On April 6, 2012, after almost a year of rehab, Vito was scheduled for another court appearance. Keahon assured him that appearance was just a formality, and that the judge would be so impressed with Vito’s rehab record that he would probably sentence him to “time served” and probation for his crimes. If so, Vito would serve no jail time.

Vito didn’t believe Keahon. He tells me, “I knew I wasn’t gonna be released. I was going to jail.” So, when the court allowed him to travel unaccompanied from Phoenix House to the Suffolk County Courthouse, Vito simply vanished. “I hid out with my friend Tommy for six weeks,” Vito tells me. “I didn’t do drugs or even drink beer, I just felt that after all this rehab I deserved some freedom.”

I hid out with my friend Tommy for six weeks. I didn’t do drugs or even drink beer, I just felt that after all this rehab I deserved some freedom.

When Vito finally turned himself in he found himself back in front of a judge again. This time, the judge was not so understanding. When Keahon pointed out that two other “note” bank robbers had been sentenced to five months jail time and five years probation, the judge was not sympathetic to his argument. “Your client had two chances in rehab and blew them both,” the judge said, and sentenced Vito to one-and-a-half years in prison for his crimes. Considering the time Vito already had spent in prison and rehab, this meant he would be released, without probation, on November 9, 2012. A lawyer familiar with the case told me, “That was the worst thing that could have happened to Vito. Now he won’t have to pee in a cup to prove he’s clean.” He left unspoken the obvious. Now Vito would have to take control of his own life and assert his own will to remain clean from drugs.

I had been chasing Vito, his parents, and his lawyer for a year. I made travel reservations to meet him at his April 6, 2012, hearing, under the assumption I could interview him after the judge released him from custody. On the day of my flight, Keahon’s assistant called to tell me that Vito was now a fugitive with a warrant out for his arrest. Then, six weeks later, he turned himself in and was incarcerated first at the Riverhead maximum security prison on Long Island, and then, in late August, he was transferred to the Yaphank minimum security prison. I got a message to Vito through the warden’s assistant. Vito told her he’d be glad to talk to me for a story, which is how I came to spend three separate days in the Yaphank visiting room talking to Vito Frabizio for two hours at a time in late August. In my free time I called Keahon and Vito’s mother, but again, neither of them would talk to me.

The Prison Scene

On my last day with Vito, in an empty visitor’s room at 8 a.m., he sat across from me, hunched forward, his hands clasped on the concrete bench that separated us. He was a respectful young man, well-spoken, polite, at least modestly intelligent. On all three days, when he greeted me he shook my hand and said, “Hello, Sir,” and when I left he shook my hand again and thanked me for coming. I asked him why he got into drugs. He said, “They (rehab counselors) said I had an emptiness. I was missing something. I had a lack of self-worth. I substituted my baseball addiction for a drug addiction. Being an outlaw bank robber was like being a star.” Then he reminded me that over our three days of conversation we had talked about those eight months of his life when he was doing drugs and robbing banks, “and never once did I mention a girl,” he said. “Heroin is harder to divorce than a girl.”

He said drugs were no longer a thought in his mind. All he wanted to do was worry about normal things, a job, wife, kids, his family. “My dad got me into the Long Island construction union. Maybe I’ll pitch for the Long Island Ducks, too.” The last time he worked construction was a few days before he was arrested. He told me that then he made $200 a day and spent it all shooting up heroin all day long because “that was the only way I could work. I thought people who work all day are crazy.”

Right before being released, Vito envisioned what might be in store for him after prison. He said wanted to live with his parents again. A normal life. Get up at 5 a.m., go for a run, to the gym, then work construction. At night he’ll eat a big Italian dinner with his family, and maybe a girlfriend. “Stay in with her and watch movies,” he said, “or go ice skating. I’m big into romance. But mostly I want to be with my family every night like it used to be. Sit on the couch with my dad and watch football. Talk to Gina. You know she was named ‘Cop of the Month’ recently in a NYC cop magazine.” He shook his head and smiled. “If she knew about my drugs she woulda turned me in.”

I asked him if he planned to see his old friends, like Tommy. “No,” he said. “No more club hopping either. I’m gonna change the places I usta go, change the way I dress, look, get a haircut every Friday.”

I said, “What about Max?”

He looked at me.

“I read his confession,” I said. “He claimed you knew about all the robberies, and after each one he shared the money with you.”

He looked up at me through his furrowed brow, like an innocent boy being wrongly accused … how could you even ask me such a thing?… and said, “I never knew that.”

He didn’t know where Max was, either. He said Max was in a Florida prison, but he is not. According to records, Max is serving time as a New York state inmate. I changed the subject and asked him how he saw the rest of his life playing out. He said he still had dreams of being successful. What dreams? He said he might try acting. Maybe get his own reality TV show. Become a model again. Write a book. Get his college degree and become a stockbroker, or maybe a lawyer and work with Keahon. But mostly he wanted to get in shape and pitch again.

Vito said he felt all things were possible in his life once he gets out of prison. He still has the dreams of a young boy who thinks he can be anything and everything. Or maybe his dreams are just those of an ex-junkie who feels that now that he’s off drugs he can become anything and everything because it was the drugs that sabotaged his dreams, not himself.

I asked him if he’d seen Keahon lately. He said, “No, my case is over. He’s no longer my lawyer.” Before I left Vito I gave him one of my books, about my years in the minor leagues. I inscribed it, “To Vito. Don’t Quit.” Then I wished him luck for when he was scheduled to get out of prison on November 9, 2012. He said, “Thank you. I’ll go back to living with my mom.” He smiled, added, “Go from one jail to another.”

We both stood up. He shook my hand and thanked me again. Then I watched him walk off in his green prison jumpsuit, his white socks, his flip-flops slapping the floor, in that hangdog, slouching shuffle of cons who are never in a rush because they have no place to go.

He disappeared through a door and was gone.

Epilogue

After Vito got out of prison in late November, he called me a few weeks later. He told me, “life was good.” He was living with his parents, eating his mother’s good Italian food, and had “gained twenty pounds.” His father had hooked him up with a union construction job. He was working out early in the morning, and was waiting for good weather to get back in pitching shape. He planned on making a baseball comeback in the spring but that has yet to materialize. “Do you think anyone would want me?” he said. I said, “If you’re throwing 95 mph they will.” Then he said he had been reading my book, A False Spring, about my own failed minor league career, that I had given him in prison the day I left him. He said, “I look at that inscription all the time.” Before we hung up he said,  ”I met a girl. We’re engaged.” He’d only been out of prison less than a month.

 

~r~

 
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