The Ninja Burglar got his moniker from the all-black outfit—complete with mask and hood—he wore while committing more than 160 burglaries over a 10-year period, mostly in Staten Island, but also in upstate New York and Connecticut.
He would drive through a well-to-do neighborhood until he saw his next target and enter in darkest night via the second- or third-floor window, often using a ladder he took from a nearby residence. He would usually slip into the master bedroom, because that is where people tend to keep their valuables.
Roughly half the time, the house was occupied. He would often search the room and take what he wanted while the owners slept in that very room. He sometimes would spy unseen on people in their most intimate moments. He would other times be standing hidden in the shadows, invisible in his all-black outfit as a person walked right past him.
If he came upon a safe, he would return another night with tools to open it. His total score in all the burglaries is believed to total at least $4 million in cash, jewelry, and other valuables.
Once he was nearly caught, and he fled into a grassy area beside a school. He covered himself with leaves and remained undiscovered while the police searched for him.
He was so prolific and brazen and elusive that the Staten Island Advance called the Ninja Burglar the borough’s top news story of 2007. He continued on for year after year, committing one perfect crime after another, meticulous even in his departure.
“When he left he would return the ladder from where he got it and thus there was not the suspicion that he was using those ladders,” Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon said.
And, until a slipup up in Connecticut that was his undoing, the burglar never left forensic evidence. Not a single fingerprint. Not so much as a fragment of DNA.
“There’s no question that when he applied his craft, if you will, he was very good at it and left not a trace behind,” McMahon said on Wednesday when announcing that the Ninja Burglar had finally been brought to justice.
But before movie and TV producers start scrambling for the Ninja Burglar’s life rights, they should know that he is no gentleman thief. McMahon passed along an observation that another Staten Island official had made regarding the notorious burglar they now knew to be 47-year-old Robert Costanzo.
“This is not the case case of Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief,” McMahon said.
McMahon reported that Costanzo is a registered sex offender, having committed at least five rapes, the first in 1989. He was 19 when he broke into a Staten Island apartment where an elderly grandmother was sleeping. He raped her at knifepoint before tying her up and fleeing with whatever valuables he could find.
After that, Costanzo fled to Kissimmee, Florida, and got a job at a Toyota dealership. He also raped four women at knifepoint during burglaries, two within an eight-day period, leaving a considerable amount of DNA on the bathrobe of the fourth victim, a Walt Disney World worker. He fled again after he answered the phone at the dealership and a detective began asking about an employee named Robert Costanzo without realizing who was on the line.
In December 1991, Costanzo was back in New York and got into a shootout with the police during a drug deal in Harlem. He was convicted on rape, weapons, and drug charges in 1992 and sentenced to a maximum term of 19 years. He was paroled after 12 years.
He worked as a welder until his employer learned that he was a sex offender and fired him. He might very well have resumed breaking into houses anyway.
In his next round of burglaries, Costanzo took far greater care not to get caught. He dressed in black and kept this face covered and wore gloves. He managed to abstain from further rapes for fear of leaving DNA.
But he was not so cautious that he refrained from burglarizing occupied houses. He must have liked padding around people as they lay unsuspecting in their beds. He may have gotten a rush of power such as every rapist seeks. He also may have reasoned that when folks are home, so are whatever valuables they might have gone out with.
“He would take valuables, cash, watches, occasionally designer handbags,” McMahon said. “He said he liked to give [the handbags] to his friends, if you will, as gifts.”
He lived on a middle-class street in Staten Island with a woman and a child. He went about his life as if he were just another guy who worked nights and maybe gambled a bit.
“Pretty much leading a normal life,” McMahon said.
Costanzo sought to keep the police from discerning a pattern by choosing no particular night of the week to hit a house. Detectives nonetheless became sure that a large number of burglaries were being committed by a single black-clad individual. They came to call it Pattern 16.
The public called the perpetrator the Ninja Burglar. And Costanzo would later indicate to detectives that he was not entirely displeased when his crimes became the talk of Staten Island. McMahon noted, “I think that there was certainly—sadly—some pride in that.”
In October 2014, NYPD detectives assigned to the Staten Island District Attorney’s office met with investigators from New Jersey and upstate New York.
“By happenstance, they spoke to a detective from Saratoga Springs, New York, who advised them that her department was investigating a similar residential burglary pattern and that the main suspect was a Staten Island resident—Costanzo,” McMahon’s office would later report.
The Staten Island investigators compared their cases with the one in Saratoga Springs and later with ones elsewhere in New York and in New Jersey. They placed Costanzo under physical and electronic surveillance.
Costanzo slipped away to Connecticut, and maybe the pressure made him get sloppy. He broke into a house in Farmington that had a floor safe in a closet, but rather than come back another night with tools, he ordered an elderly woman to open it while pressing a knife against her neck.
As she was still kneeling by the now-empty safe, Costanzo stepped away. She heard him make a cellphone call and was even able to hear a voice message come on.
After Costanzo fled, she called the police, and she did not forget to tell them about the cellphone call. Detectives checked the surrounding cell towers and determined that a cellphone with a New York City area code—347—had been used to call a man in New Britain at the time of the burglary.
The man initially played dumb, but then he confessed to driving a man named Robert Costanzo to the vicinity of the house in question, picking him up after the burglary.
When the Farmington detectives sought to track down Costanzo, they discovered that he was a sex offender and that he had failed to verify his address every 90 days, as required by law. That gave the U.S. Marshals a reason to join the hunt.
In November 2014, Costanzo was arrested. He had doubly slipped up during the Farmington burglary by leaving behind some DNA. The detectives took a sample from him, and it matched.
Back when he was charged with the Florida rapes, Costanzo had agreed to plead guilty if he was allowed to do his time in New York and be near his family.
The detectives and McMahon’s office now offered Costanzo a similar deal in this case. Costanzo agreed and made a detailed confession on videotape over the course of two days. Many of the burglaries had occurred more than five years before, the statute of limitations on such crimes in New York state.
On Wednesday, Costanzo appeared for arraignment in Staten Island criminal court. The man who had crept into more than 160 homes in all black now stood before a judge in a light tan sweatshirt and matching sweatpants. The woman and girl with whom he had so often been seen while living an apparently normal life now sat at the back of the courtroom. He waived his right to have the case heard by a grand jury.
Afterward, McMahon held a press conference and announced that Costanzo had agreed to plead guilty to three burglaries. The deal would involve a considerable number of years—said to be in the double digits—to be served in New York state.
McMahon said the exact term would not be made public until Thursday, when Costanzo is expected to enter his plea and be sentenced. What McMahon was able to say on Wednesday with some rightful pride was this:
“The Ninja Burglar case has finally been solved.”