On the night of Nov. 26, a man walked into a Wegmans store on Alberta Drive in Amherst, where he stepped up to a counter and began stuffing shoelaces, a pair of sandals, a small stuffed animal and other miscellaneous items worth a total of $23 into a shopping basket.
Making sure the cashier and other people in the store saw him, the man then walked out of the store without paying. A few minutes later, Amherst police arrested him on a shoplifting charge.
The man was Frank J. Morrocco, an Amherst resident who was convicted of felony drug conspiracy charges in the 1990s and released from federal prison last December after serving 20 years. He suffers from a rare form of leukemia.
Morrocco said he intentionally got himself arrested in hopes that a federal judge would send him to prison for a violation of supervised release.
That way, Morrocco said, he would be able to get “prison health care that is very good” – health care that he says he cannot afford as a free man.
“It was an act of desperation. I went into that store and took things I didn’t need, and I made sure a lot of people saw me,” the 56-year-old Morrocco told The Buffalo News. “At the time I did it, I felt that I didn’t have any other way to get the care that I need for my leukemia.”
Federal marshals informed Morrocco on Friday that they have a warrant for his arrest, and he said he will turn himself in Monday.
Morrocco will appear before a judge to answer charges that he violated the terms of his five-year term of supervised release by shoplifting. The judge could then determine that, because of this violation, Morrocco will be sent back to prison.
But Morrocco now has second thoughts about his decision to shoplift his way back to prison.
That’s because after his arrest, a relative and two friends came forward and told him that they would pay for his health care insurance.
“I wasn’t thinking straight when I did this. I did not know that I had people in my life who would help me,” Morrocco said.
Morrocco’s case is unusual, said Anthony M. San Giacomo, chief probation officer in Buffalo’s federal court.
“In 21 years as a probation officer, it’s the first time I’ve encountered a case where a person says they intentionally got arrested to get prison health care,” San Giacomo said. “Our office does work with offenders to help them apply for Medicaid and other possible health benefits, but the determination of eligibility is not made in our office.”
His office is aware of Morrocco’s situation and has tried to help him find health care coverage, San Giacomo said.
Too many assets
Morrocco said social workers at local hospitals have tried to help him find a health care company that would take him on as a client. The fact that he works – as an independent contractor, going to auctions and buying cars for local car dealers – and has saved a modest amount of money makes it impossible for him to get government coverage under Medicaid.
“I’ve been denied [Medicaid] and also was denied Social Security disability coverage. I was told it was because I have more than $2,500 in assets,” Morrocco said. “I do have more than $2,500 in assets, but I am not a wealthy man. I barely get by, and I can’t afford the $500 to $600 it would cost me a month for [private] health care coverage.”
His earnings as a car buyer are sporadic, Morrocco said. Some weeks he makes as much as $500 to $1,000. Other weeks, he doesn’t make a penny. He does not get health coverage from the car dealerships he works with.
“I don’t have enough steady income to pay for health insurance right now. Maybe I will in the future,” he said.
“I think it’s a horrible situation,” said attorney Paul J. Cambria, who knows Morrocco and has been informed of his situation. “This is a guy who did something out of desperation because he felt there was no other way out. … Now, he’s found some friends who are willing to help him.”
Attorney Joel Daniels is now representing Morrocco. On Saturday, Daniels referred to the situation as “a very sad case, very unfortunate.”
“Hopefully, down the road, when Obamacare kicks in, you’ll no longer have situations like this,” Daniels said. “You’ll no longer have cases where a man is trying to get into prison to get better health care.”
Worst of many bad decisions
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony M. Bruce, who prosecuted Morrocco in the drug case two decades ago, declined to comment.
Morrocco’s shoplifting arrest is the latest strange twist in a case that dates back to the early 1990s, when he was one of several men indicted in connection with a Buffalo cocaine ring.
Morrocco could have taken a plea deal after his arrest and received a prison sentence of about five years, according to federal law enforcement officials. But he went against his attorney’s advice and spurned the plea deal, insisting on going to trial.
FBI agents wanted him to become a “snitch” against several old friends, Morrocco said, and he felt he couldn’t do that. He also felt that the plea deal that was offered to him was not as advantageous as the ones given to his co-defendants, some of whom had been involved in homicides.
Having a tantrum in court and turning down the plea deal turned out to be the worst of many bad decisions in Morrocco’s life.
He was convicted of felony charges of conspiring to traffic in cocaine. Under federal sentencing guidelines, because of the large amount of cocaine involved, he was sentenced to 21 years in prison in late 1994.
“I realize now that I should have taken the plea,” Morrocco said.
And yet, going to prison may have saved his life, he said.
“Before that, I was using cocaine, and I wasn’t ready to do what I needed to straighten out my life,” Morrocco said.
In prison, he was forced to stop using cocaine, and Morrocco swears that he will never use it again.
It was also in prison that he was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, called hairy cell leukemia. He was sent to a medical prison facility in Butner, N.C., in 2008. He received chemotherapy, regular checkups, extensive blood work and other treatment that greatly improved his health, Morocco said.
“I was fortunate to be sent there. As far as I’m concerned, Butner is like the Roswell Park Institute of the federal prison system. I got very good care there,” Morrocco said.
Medical bills adding up
Since his release from prison last December, Morrocco said he has only occasionally gone to doctors, because he cannot afford health care.
“I got very weak, very sick over the summer, and I went to the DeGraff Hospital emergency room [in North Tonawanda] for treatment. After that, I went to Roswell. The people were very nice to me, but I couldn’t afford to continue the treatment,” Morrocco said.
Now, he owes more than $5,000 to those two hospitals, he said.
Morrocco said he doesn’t know how his federal case, relating to the shoplifting charge, will work out.
He said he is aware of other cases in other states in which ex-convicts have committed crimes in hopes that they will return to prison and get health care.
Situations with some similarities to Morrocco’s have surfaced in recent media reports in Columbus, Ga.; Gastonia, N.C.; and Northern Cambria, Pa., all within the past five months. There have been cases in all three cities involving men who said they committed crimes so they could get arrested, go to prison and get better health care.
A federal judge in Columbus, Ga., recently sentenced Edward Pascucci, a former police officer, to five years and three months in federal prison. Pascucci, 54, said he used an unloaded gun to rob a bank in August because he was homeless, jobless, suffering from “severe health problems” and wanted to go to prison for treatment.
“Do I want to go back to prison? No,” Morrocco said. “But do I want to die on the outside because I can’t afford health care? No, I don’t want to do that, either.”