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Convict in hooker holdups could be freed from prison soon

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

CLIFFVIEW PILOT EXCLUSIVE: A Saddle Brook man who admitted setting up and robbing prostitutes at Clifton and Hackensack motels by pretending to be a cop could be out of prison sooner than expected, following a state appeals court ruling that the Bergen County sentencing judge overdid it.

Michael Sarmadi

Michael Sarmadi wasn’t due for parole until September 2015. However, he appealed his seven-year maximum sentence, noting that one of his co-defendants got a sweetheart deal by turning snitch.

The cooperator, Anthony Serrao, spent less than four months behind bars, records show.

The appeals court found nothing wrong with the differing sentences, given that Serrao began giving investigators details on those and no fewer than a half-dozen other crimes – all but one leading to arrests – immediately after he was caught, records show.

Sarmadi not only participated in both hooker holdups (Serrao was involved only in Clifton), the appeals judges noted in last week’s ruling. He was also one of the last defendants to accept a plea bargain from prosecutors.

The crimes were “undoubtedly reprehensible” acts of cowardice, the Appellate Division ruling says. However, the judges ruled that these  weren’t committed in a particularly “heinous, cruel, or depraved manner,” as the judge in Hackensack found.

Sardami, now 26, must be re-sentenced without that qualification, they ordered.

How much this could shave off Sarmadi’s term is unclear. He has been in state custody since the November 2009 sentencing.

In early 2008, Sarmadi and three accomplices devised a plan to rob prostitutes they met at local hotels, the ruling says. Once the hookers arrived, they pretended they were police – showing fake “private investigator” badges – and claiming it was a sting.

The crew included Christopher Gordnick, whose father, John, was involved in the shooting death of a limo driver by former NBA star Jayson Williams.

One of the robbers also had a BB gun when they took money, a laptop and a PlayStation in the Clifton holdup on Jan. 28, police said. Investigators had surveillance video showing them fleeing.

That was followed on Feb. 6 by another robbery in which the crew (minus Serrao) took $200. They also tried but failed to swipe another laptop. Although no weapon was shown this time, one of the robbers smacked the victim in the face, Hackensack police said.

Police arrested Serrao on March 15. He quickly arranged for a deal, offering to plead guilty to first-degree armed robbery charges and promising to “testify truthfully” against his partners, court papers show.

Prosecutors agreed to treat the holdup as a second-degree offense, drop the police impersonation charge and recommend the judge give Serrao no more than five years in state prison.

Faced with a onetime partner set to play star witness against him, Sarmadi took his own plea on Aug. 3, 2009.

In Sarmadi’s favor at his Nov. 20 sentencing was that he didn’t physically harm anyone, that he had just fathered a child and that he has a congenital heart disease.

On the other hand, as the appeals panel agreed:

“The idea of concocting a scheme, whether it’s with a real gun, or a fake gun, and robbing people who would be less likely to report this to the police, [is] an act of cowardice. You have four people getting together to rob these women, and the fact that they pick people [who] wouldn’t complain says something of the character of these individuals.”

The judge was right in determining that Sarmadi, having committed the same crime two different times only weeks apart, could quickly be at it again, particularly considering that he already had a criminal record, the appeals court determined.

Three weeks after the local judge sent Sarmadi away, Bergen prosecutors let Serrao change his guilty plea from first-degree armed robbery to third-degree theft.

The reason? Serrao’s “substantial cooperation” with law enforcement on investigations unrelated to the robberies, court papers show.

He was sentenced in January and was out by May.

Sarmadi appealed, saying his sentence was particularly excessive compared with Serrao’s.

Such deals, the appeals judges responded, are up to individual prosecutors. It’s part of how they do their jobs. Plea agreements not only move justice along in the particular case, the higher court said. At times, they help catch other criminals.

Yes, the appeals judges said, a lower court should weigh vastly differing deals, but only to determine whether “grievous inequities” occurred. That clearly wasn’t the case here, they said.

In fact, they gave Serrao points for rolling over immediately without waiting to see where prosecutors would go with the case.

On the other hand, the appeals court said, Sarmadi waited until he essentially had no choice.






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