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.

In the past 20 years, Robert Riggio has ripped off 114 Roman Catholic priests—a total that authorities say may be only a sliver of the real number. He has suckered them out of at least $1.6 million, most of it in small amounts, but a million of it from just one church.

Most of the conned priests never saw their money again, but in at least one case, Riggio robbed Peter to pay Paul—he used money stolen from one priest to repay another.

Incredibly, he did it all over the phone. Practically all of his victims never even met him.

illustration: Luis Diaz

The duped were in parishes all over the country. They fell for Riggio's stories about his daughter needing college money, his mother being evicted, his own life threatened by loan-shark leg-breakers.

Caught several times, Riggio wriggled out of major prison sentences and sinned again and again. The latest investigation shows that he conned at least 60 priests, most from out of state, to wire him more than $200,000 in 150 transactions between March 2004 and September 2006.

As he has often done, Riggio immediately confessed to his latest crime spree, tearfully blaming a gambling addiction, and threw himself at the mercy of the court. That con worked pretty well, too. He was sentenced to prison in 1990 and again in 1998, but that didn't stop him from continuing to work priests and other clergy—and even his own relatives.

Now 62, nailed for the umpteenth time and facing up to seven years in prison, he tells the Voice: 'They'll read your article, and you know what they'll say. They'll say, 'Fuck the guy. Let him rot in jail for the next 50 years.' '

If history holds true to form, just before Riggio is sentenced on April 25 in Manhattan federal court for wire fraud, he'll turn on the waterworks and berate himself in open court for taking advantage of the priests' predisposition to help people. In the last of his brief conversations with the Voice, however, Riggio offered up no tears on that subject. He demanded money to be interviewed at length but was rebuffed. He did say of the priests he conned: 'I didn't know none of those guys. I never met them. It was nothing personal.'

One of the conned priests warns that whatever Riggio gets in this life is inconsequential compared with what's coming. There's one entity, the cleric says, who won't be fooled by Riggio.

'He's going to go to a place that I'm not going to go to,' says the cleric, who was ripped off in a baseball-equipment scam. 'That's a fact. If what I believe is true, he's in big trouble.'

Father James Hannon never considered himself naive until he encountered Robert Riggio.

Hannon can say Mass in seven languages, four of which he also speaks fluently. The 76-year-old intellectual is one of the last of the Catholic Church's '12-year men'—he entered a seminary at age 14 and received a dozen years of classical education. (Today's priests typically receive four years of college, followed by four years in a seminary.)

But Hannon wasn't always ensconced in an ivory tower. No gullible hick from the sticks, he was born and raised in Brooklyn, the stickball-playing kid of a city cop.

In November 2003, Hannon was stationed at St. Anne's in Brentwood, Long Island, when he received a phone call from a man who called himself 'Bill Haggerty.'

'You remember me, don't you?' the caller said in thick Brooklynese. 'After church the other day, we met out in front with my granddaughter.'

Sorry, Hannon said, but he didn't recall that meeting. Haggerty pressed on. He told Hannon that his mother and his wife weren't getting along. He mentioned several times that the two women were both from Puerto Rico—Hannon could relate to that because St. Anne's parish has a sizable Latino population.

Haggerty said he needed a loan to set his mother up in her own apartment. Between the first and last months' rent and a security deposit, Haggerty needed about $2,000. His marriage was riding on the help, he said, and he vowed to quickly repay the money.

Over the years, Hannon would give someone 50 bucks for groceries, $100 to help out on rent, or enough money for a train or bus ticket. Only one other time did Hannon give away the amount of money that Haggerty was requesting. And that was in the old days, when Mass was still recited in Latin by priests whose backs were turned away from the congregation, and when priests could easily dip into church coffers in such situations.

By the time Haggerty called, not only had the language of Hannon's Masses changed from Latin to English to Spanish, but helping a congregant had to first be cleared through church channels.

Hannon didn't do that. After he borrowed $2,000 from church funds to give to Haggerty, two co-pastors discovered that the money was missing and told the old-school priest that, as Hannon recalls, 'we do not do parish outreach.' Hannon repaid the church out of his own pocket from his small salary.

Hannon says he should have known something was amiss when, instead of showing up in person, Haggerty sent a courier service for the money.

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.

'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.'

She contended that the family often went for days without food and didn't repay debts. 'My mother, God rest her soul,' June wrote, 'would send her children to neighbors and grocery store owners, asking them for credit, and she would never pay them when she got her check. My brother Robert was sent out the most, and by this example, of seeing my mother take from others and never pay back, could only lead me to believe that Robert was most affected by this.'

June isn't so compassionate toward her little brother these days. She says that she hasn't spoken to him in more than five years, and that their brother Jay, a retired city cop, 'hasn't had anything to do with him at all' in more than 25 years. 'We grew up poor, but that doesn't matter,' she says. 'You can grow up poor, but when you get older you get an education, you get a job, you do things the right way. He's not an example of our family. We're hard-working people—we worked hard all our life. He never wanted to work.'

The most believable facts about Robert Riggio are laid out in various court-ordered evaluations. One of them termed Riggio an 'average student' who was in the Army from 1967 to 1970, when he was honorably discharged. He started working as a cabbie and as a messenger and got married in 1971. The evaluation noted that Riggio started betting the ponies at Belmont, 'won $150, loved it, and was hooked right away.'

'Stepping on the rug of a casino is like getting a blood transfusion,' Riggio tells the Voice. 'You can't explain it to anyone who doesn't have the problem.'

Others eventually paid for his habits, but Riggio does earn praise from Father Frank Scanlon, who was stationed at St. Brigid's, on Avenue B, from 1982 to 1990. Riggio, he says, offered 'the best-equipped, best-run' baseball leagues on the Lower East Side.

'He somehow got permits for the best fields, used to have punch for the kids and hot dogs, and used to take his teams all over to play,' says Scanlon. 'Believe me, Bob was very generous with the kids.'

Riggio's traveling team played in Philadelphia, Delaware, all over New Jersey, and as far away as Orlando, Florida. Scanlon says Riggio called his league the 'Pepsi Cola Little League' and even had banners made up, so everyone assumed that Pepsi was sponsoring it. It turned out that some of Scanlon's compadres had really been footing the bill for the league, as well as for Riggio's gambling habit.

Riggio eventually admitted conning 52 priests between June 1987 and March 1990.

Posing as 'Jim Martin,' he took a Lisbon, Ohio, priest for $14,000. Riggio persuaded an Idaho priest, Donald Simmons, to wire him more than $20,000. 'At the time,' Simmons later wrote the judge, 'I was so sure I was helping a good, honest person in a time of dire need. . . . Now that justice is about to be served, I would hope that you consider how this man has injured me and others!'

Scanlon says he doesn't want to call his fellow priests 'stupid' for falling for Riggio's ruses, then does just that.

'I thought they were stupid for giving him the money in the first place,' he says. 'Who would give away their retirement to someone they don't even know? So I didn't have much sympathy for them.'

But Scanlon himself got conned, though not out of money. He tried unsuccessfully to broker a deal allowing Riggio to pay back the New York Archdiocese in an effort to reduce his potential jail time. And Scanlon broke ranks at Riggio's November 1990 sentencing on charges of theft by deception to speak on his behalf.

Federal judge Miriam Cedarbaum didn't buy the Lower East Side Robin Hood act. 'You cannot justify to yourself even a little bit that the way in which you used this money somehow excuses what you did,' she told Riggio as she sentenced him to the maximum two years.

'Who's to judge anybody, right?' Scanlon says. 'I thought he had learned his lesson and he was just going to get on with it. But it turned out he's an addict. He's addicted to gambling, and he needs help.'

That's one way of looking at it.

After his release from prison in 1991, Riggio spent a year in Gamblers Anonymous. But by the fall of 1992, he had resumed his trips to the racetracks, OTB parlors, and casinos.

In the fall of '94, Riggio called an upstate youth-baseball coach, a priest against whom he'd coached.

The priest says Riggio's 'out-of-the-blue call' was an offer to invest in a new baseball-equipment company. The first hit was for $500, and Riggio promised big returns. The reverend, who considers himself intelligent and worldly, says that Riggio gradually sucked more and more money from him. Ultimately, Riggio took him for more than $50,000.

'When you give away all that money, you're enticed to give more and more and more,' the upstate priest says. 'He was always saying, 'We'll get it back—you'll get it back, I promise you.' Coming from Brooklyn, I met so many guys like that, it's sad I didn't spot it.'

But that priest had an advantage that most of Riggio's other victims didn't: He knew who'd taken his money. After he filed a criminal complaint, Riggio eventually repaid him everything plus interest—a total of $65,450—in an attempt to avoid jail. Riggio would later claim that he won that money gambling. Prosecutors said a chunk of it, if not all, came from a con man's dream: an elderly New Jersey priest named Frederick Valentino, who was in the midst of a parish fundraising drive and had delusions of grandeur.

The community center next to St. Bonaventure's Roman Catholic Church in Lavallette, a town of about 4,000 on the Jersey shore, has all the charm of a Days Inn. Functional, yes. Grand in the traditional style of the church, not exactly.

Robert Riggio is to blame for the nearly $500,000 in debt that St. Bonnie's is still paying down a decade after the building was supposed to be erected practically debt-free. The building itself is merely a scaled-down version of what Valentino originally planned.

Desperate for money to repay the upstate priest, Riggio started his fingers walking through a thick red book called the Official Catholic Directory, which lists all the churches in the country, until he connected with St. Bonaventure's Valentino.

Using the name 'Timothy Ryan'—coincidentally the name of the church's biggest donor, who owns a chain of funeral homes—Riggio pitched one of his favorite hard-luck stories: He needed $20,000 to repay a gambling debt or else the loan sharks were coming after him. It's still unclear whether the priest thought this Timothy Ryan was the same as the funeral-home owner, but in any event he bit.

Riggio's next move was to disguise his voice and call the priest, identifying himself as a banker friend of Ryan's named 'Tom Barracus.' In a clever piece of truth-telling, Riggio (posing as the banker) told the priest that 'Ryan' didn't have the money to pay him back and never would. But, Barracus said, he could cut the priest in on a lucrative offshore oil investment. Valentino, then 74, began dreaming of building not only the community center but also a school, as well as passing on some of the money to parishes that were having a hard time keeping afloat.

'The priest was elderly and was just misled in many ways and was led right down the path,' says Robert Leaman, a state prosecutor who handled the case. 'Father Valentino was trying to do good. He thought he was turning the money to a higher advantage. It just didn't turn out that way.'

Riggio occasionally sent the priest paperwork purporting to show that the investment was making the church bundles. As the promised investment return climbed to $20 million, Valentino gave Riggio an astounding $1,314,450 in church funds in just over a year. All of it was delivered via courier; the priest never met either 'Ryan' or 'Barracus.'

The scam wasn't uncovered until December 1997, when a bank clerk became suspicious that Valentino, who was attempting to withdraw $30,000, was being extorted. The clerk contacted the diocese, which conducted an audit, which uncovered the missing money. Detectives eventually tracked Riggio through the couriers who had been delivering the money directly to him at his Grand Street apartment.

Valentino was placed on 'medical leave,' as church officials called it. 'We're still trying to recover,' says Leonard Troiano, the priest who replaced him. 'My God, that left us with a $1.3 million debt. He almost put us out of business. It left us with just barely enough to keep operating.'

Troiano recalls the 'overwhelming' shock of the 1,200 or so parishioners when he told them during a day of Masses about the swindle. He says he told the flock, 'Most of us have lived through a world war or a depression. We made it through that; we'll get through this.' All he could offer them was a 'peace prayer.'

Having worked on the business side of New Jersey's largest paper, the Star-Ledger, before joining the priesthood, Troiano was specifically brought in to restore financial stability and bring reform to the church. In fact, he says, the state's dioceses subsequently put in place 'Riggio rules'—safeguards like requiring financial-oversight committees at all the churches.

Much to the dismay of St. Bonaventure's faithful, Riggio—who turned out to be a model prisoner and coached the prison basketball team—served only a third of his nine-year maximum prison sentence. He was paroled in May of 2001.

Then he went back to his chosen profession. By the same time Suffolk County detectives were closing in on him for scamming Father Hannon, the FBI had received a complaint from a Kentucky reverend who had lent $25,600 to a man calling himself 'William Kelley,' whose mother was supposedly being evicted from her Manhattan apartment. The FBI used an agent to pose as the reverend's niece, and she made the next delivery in person. Riggio was busted yet again. And again Riggio confessed, pled guilty, and tearfully asked for mercy.

One of his lawyers insists that Riggio's contrition isn't an act. But Riggio's sister doesn't buy it.

Yes, she says, he does have a gambling problem. But, she adds, 'he always had an angle. He never lived by the rules.'

June Riggio recalls the time years ago when Robert lied to her daughter that it was all right to 'borrow' money that June had set aside for a family vacation. He never paid it back. Another time, she says, he concocted a tale of woe to hit up her landlady for money. Robert would also put the arm on his older brother Jay's friends, she says, and Jay would have to pay them back.

The final blow came after Robert's latest stint in prison. June says she and her daughter regularly got up at 3 a.m. to take a bus upstate to visit her brother, bringing him food and money. But after Robert was paroled, she says, he didn't have anything to do with them.

'He was a user of people, so I don't feel sorry for him,' she says. 'He used people all his life.'

When June Riggio, now 68, moved a couple of years ago from her Queens home after retiring as a secretary at a city hospital, she didn't tell Robert or his family. She insists that her new location not be publicized for fear that her brother might drag her back into his troubles or try to scam her new neighbors. She's one victim who won't be scammed again.

'He doesn't care about anything to do about his family,' she says, 'so as far his family goes, we don't have a brother Robert.'

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