At Prey in the Fields of the Lord

Robert Riggio has made a career out of conning priests and parishes by phone. If he calls you, hang up.

But that wasn't the end of it. The day after Hannon shelled out the $2,000 to Haggerty, the supposed parishioner called to say that there had been a misunderstanding: He was still $1,500 short. Hannon dipped into his own retirement savings and sent it along.

Over the next two months, Haggerty called five or six times a week, coming up with what Hannon says were 'a whole series of other developments.' A pushy man claiming to be Haggerty's prospective landlord called to demand cash that day or he'd rent the apartment to someone else. Hannon sent the money. Haggerty called to say that he was being blamed for $6,000 missing from a safe at his job—he told the priest that he was an American Airlines mechanic. A man who said he was Haggerty's boss called to say that poor Bill would be fired unless the money was returned.

Father Jim recalls becoming quite fond of Haggerty. But he says he had growing suspicions. The more they talked, the more Hannon seemed to catch Haggerty in contradictions. Hannon says he figured that Haggerty just wasn't ready to talk about his real problems. Probably alcohol or gambling, Hannon thought.

illustration: Luis Diaz

'I was hoping that something would give sometime,' says Father Jim, 'and I'd meet him and we'd get together and I'd try to help him.'

Plans for that face-to-face were set several times, but they always fell through—as when Haggerty told Hannon that he was stranded in Philadelphia during a snowstorm.

After three months of this, Haggerty had given the priest two repayments—a total of $800. Meanwhile, the priest had sent Haggerty chunks of $500 or $1,500 or $2,000—a total of $31,000, the priest's entire retirement savings.

Just after Christmas 2003, Hannon recalls, he told Haggerty that he was tapped out and needed to be repaid. Haggerty never called again. The telephone number that Haggerty had given him—usually busy because his supposedly Internet-crazed wife was constantly using their dial-up connection—became permanently busy.

Another priest at St. Anne's, who had been warning Hannon all along that he was being taken, eventually convinced him to contact authorities.

Danny McNicholas, a detective with the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office, inherited a case nearly devoid of leads: Hannon never saw Haggerty, didn't have a phone number for him, and didn't even know which courier service was used. In January 2005, with the case still nowhere, McNicholas had his boss, Robert Creighton, reach out to Newsday, hoping a story would generate leads. After the story ran, a courier came forward and provided a description of a man to whom he'd made one of Hannon's deliveries outside a Manhattan bank. Investigators subpoenaed copies of the church's phone records, focusing on incoming Manhattan calls. Robert Riggio's number matched those of calls made to Hannon on the days he withdrew money for Haggerty. McNicholas said records indicated that Riggio had also called more than 30 other Long Island priests in recent months. Only Hannon had taken the bait—or at least, McNicholas says, he was the only one to own up to it. Now Hannon is stationed at St. Brigid's in Westbury, Long Island.

In March 2005, after Newsday did a story about Riggio's arrest, an elderly priest from New Jersey named Frederick Valentino called Hannon to offer condolences. He didn't get into the details, says Hannon, but Riggio had done the same thing to him.

'It did help,' says Hannon, 'knowing I wasn't the only person who was deceived by him.'

Not by a long shot.

At least one part of Robert Riggio's spiel is believable. In 1990, pleading to a Manhattan federal judge for leniency, he wrote, 'One day many years ago, I took the bus to Belmont Park race track, and the rest is history.'

Father James Hannon looks like a priest from Central Casting, but Robert Riggio is the type of con artist about whom Hollywood would never make a movie. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, the silver-haired, mustachioed Riggio is anything but colorful. He's a teetotaler who says he has never even smoked cigarettes.

Now 62, with a history of hypertension, diabetes, and heart problems, and suffering from a cancerous patch on his nose that postponed his latest sentencing for nearly a year, Riggio lives in a modest condo complex on the Lower East Side with his schoolteacher wife of more than 30 years.

He used to drive a taxi. But all the while, all these years, he has gambled. At one point in his life, Riggio started sponsoring baseball leagues for kids on the Lower East Side. Later, after one of the times he was busted, he claimed a Robin Hood defense by saying that most of the money he stole from priests was used to support '300 minority kids' in the leagues. He did use some of the money for these leagues.

But most of the money he's made by scamming priests has been lost in workmanlike fashion by his gambling on slow ponies at the tracks and uncooperative dice at the casinos.

According to what family members have told various courts over the years, Riggio grew up poor, the youngest of three children on the Lower East Side. His father left 'while Bob was being formed in my mother's uterus,' his older sister, June Riggio, wrote to a judge in 1990, 'and he never had the love and guidance of a father.'

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