ST. GEORGE — The "Ninja Burglar" will spend 25 years behind bars for a decade-long break-in spree that started after he lost his job as an elevator technician, his lawyer said.
Robert Costanzo, 46, a convicted rapist, pleaded guilty in court Thursday to three of the more than 100 burglaries committed on Staten Island and agreed to spend 25 years in jail, with five years supervision after his release.
He couldn't be convicted of most of the break-ins because they exceeded the statute of limitations.
The agreement was worked out between him and the Staten Island District Attorney.
"Finally unmasked as the ‘Ninja Burglar,’ Mr. Costanzo has taken responsibility for these three burglaries and will receive a substantial prison sentence of 25 years," DA Michael McMahon said in a statement.
"For 10 years, the residents of Grymes Hill, Emerson Hill, Todt Hill, Lighthouse Hill, Castleton Corners, Silver Lake, West Brighton and Grasmere slept in fear of being burglarized by a brazen thief. Now, they can rest assured knowing that Mr. Costanzo will be securely behind bars."
Costanzo's lawyer, John Stawicki, said outside court that Costanzo was previously convicted of burglary and rape, but turned his life around and got a job making $33 an hour as an elevator technician.
However, after two years his bosses found out about his prior convictions and fired him in 2004, which lead him to return to crime to support his family, Stawicki said.
"His felony record caught up with him and he was fired, not because he couldn't do his job, but because he had a felony record," Stawicki said. "That pushed him back into it."
Costanzo evaded capture by authorities for 10 years and broke into more than 200 homes in Staten Island, Upstate New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, netting more than $4 million in cash and goods, DA Michael McMahon said.
He admitted to police that he had carried out more than 100 just in Staten Island — though officers believe the number to be closer to 160 — but was only charged for three of them, McMahon said.
He broke into the homes, usually while the owners were inside, from 2005 to 2015 and wore all black with his face covered, resembling a ninja.
The nickname started after a 2007 burglary where a Dongan Hills resident said he encountered a nunchuck-wielding burglar, but police did not tie Costanzo to that crime.
Stawicki said his client found out about the nickname through news coverage and thought it was "amusing."
"I don't think he took any particular honor in it," Stawicki said, contradicting McMahon who said Wednesday Costanzo was proud of the name.
He added that Costanzo made sure to never hurt any of his victims during the break-ins.
"I don't think he felt particularly bad, other than any discomfort it caused people," Stawicki said.
Friends and family of Costanzo were inside the courtroom to offer their support and said he always helped people in the neighborhood.
"I was shocked when I saw him on the news," said Daniel Green, of New Brighton, a friend of Costanzo.
"He really was a good dude to the neighborhood. I remember a time when he gave out ice cream to the kids around the neighborhood."
"He was a great person," said longtime friend Shaneea Daniels. "People do things. They don't do things to get themselves in trouble, but they do things to enjoy their lives."
Throughout his spree, Costanzo typically targeted homes in wealthier neighborhoods and usually targeted cash, jewelry and watches, McMahon said.
He would also take designer handbags that he would give out to friends in the neighborhood, McMahon said.
He often got in through the second or third-floor balcony of homes by taking a ladder from a neighboring home and returning it when he was done, the DA said.
Despite breaking into hundreds of homes, Costanzo never left any DNA trace except for a recent one in Connecticut, McMahon said.
He was almost caught breaking into an Emerson Hill home in 2008, but avoided police by hiding in the woods and covering himself in leaves, McMahon said.
After evading the law for 10 years, police in New York and New Jersey finally tied Costanzo to the string of break-ins and arrested him Tuesday.
Stawicki said his client took the plea deal Thursday partly because it would allow him to serve his time in a New York prison instead of Connecticut, because the conditions are better and he'll be closer to his family.
He's due back in court on June 14 to be officially sentenced and waived his right to an appeal as part of his plea deal.