Robert Costanzo worked at night. He dressed in all black, covering everything except for his eyes, and slipped into upscale homes with the aid of a ladder. Often, he robbed people as they slept, tip-toeing into their bedrooms and pocketing their valuables with a deftness that earned him a nickname: the "Ninja Burglar."
This month, the 46-year-old confessed to more than 100 burglaries around the tri-state area to the tune of $4 million. And while Staten Island District Attorney Michael E. McMahon took care to point out his"reign of terror" was finally over, what the prosecutor revealed about Costanzo during a Wednesday press conference was far more terrifying than mere thievery. Apparently, the man who's been lurking in people's houses since 2007, and has now struck a plea deal with authorities, is a real-life boogeyman and serial rapist.
"This is not the case of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief," McMahon said in a press conference Wednesday.
Costanzo's first known crime was sexual assault. More specifically, when he was 19, he attacked a Staten Island grandmother at knifepoint before fleeing with her valuables. After that, he got a job near Orlando, Florida, as a Toyota salesman. During his flirtation with legitimate employment, which lasted about a year, he raped four more women during burglaries, the DA said. In one instance, he left enough physical evidence that a cop called his job asking questions, and he fled again––this time to New York.
He didn't exactly clean up his act there, according to the Daily Beast. In 1991, during a drug deal gone wrong, Costanzo got into a shootout with police. That's how he was busted for the rapes, although he was only convicted of one, because the confession he made was deemed largely inadmissible. He got lucky again when he was sentenced to a maximum of 19 years in prison but managed parole after just 12.
It was in 2007 that Constanzo started the streak that earned him his moniker. The man was suspected of 14 robberies before he met Phil Chiolo, the Staten Island resident who made him famous. The two had a confrontation mid-break-in, and Constanzo hit the man with nunchucks. The frightened homeowner struck back with a steak knife and lived to tell the tale. "The remarkable thing was that he did not display any physical pain," he told the Staten Island Register. "And the handle [of the knife] went all the way down."
From then on, residents of the wealthy enclaves of New York's outer borough were on edge, to say the least. Community meetings were held, security patrols set up, and cameras recorded cars going in and out of neighborhoods. Investigators in New York and New Jersey started to piece together the possibility that seemingly separate spates of crimes in their respective jurisdictions were the work of the same criminal.
But the Ninja Burglar never felt behind a single fingerprint or footprint that might help prove that theory. And typically, when the ever-cautious Costanzo saw a safe inside someone's house, he would come back later with the tools to open it. That is, until one night in April 2014, when he roused a 66-year-old Connecticut woman from her sleep and tried to get her to open a vault containing $75,000 worth of jewelry. At some point during the 20-minute ordeal, he made a crucial error in the form of a phone call. Police later checked nearby cell towers and tracked down a getaway driver who picked Costanzo up––and eventually gave him up to cops.
About six months later, police brought the burglar in on an unrelated charge of assaulting a police officer. They took his DNA sample and matched it to some evidence he'd left behind when robbing the Connecticut woman's safe. From there, Costanzo was turned over to authorities in New York, and the confessions started rolling out.
Just as he did with the rapes, Costanzo got lucky again. Despite his so-called reign of terror, he was charged with a mere three counts of second-degree burglary on Wednesday as part of a plea deal (and because of statutes of limitations).
At the time of his arrest, the man with a prolific history of raping and robbing was living the domestic high life on Staten Island with a woman and a kid. "I love you," Costanzo mouthed to three women and a man as he was leaving the courtroom after pleading guilty Thursday. He'll be sentenced on June 14 and faces 25 years in prison with five years of supervised release.
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