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March 3, 2005

Ex-Tier man may be returned here

From: Press & Sun-Bulletin, NY - Mar 3, 2005

Press & Sun-Bulletin

A deaf man, accused of preying on the deaf community by stealing money to get painkillers, is being held in a California jail while Tioga County officials decide whether to bring him back to face criminal charges.

Robert Lee Berry, 51, has evaded law enforcement for years, playing his disability for sympathy in the hearing world, said two deaf women who said he victimized them.

But with the help of Internet chat rooms and a veteran Tioga County sheriff's investigator, Berry could at last face his accusers -- at least in New York.

"He's like the John Dillinger of the hearing-impaired community," said Investigator Lenny Jackson, a longtime Tioga County sheriff's detective.

Now Tioga County District Attorney Gerald Keene must decide whether to spend $3,000 in county funds to extradite Berry on low-level felony charges to Owego from California, he said. Keene said he'd make a decision in the next week.

Berry lived with a deaf Owego man, Scott Westcott, for seven months and used the man's personal checks to get money, Jackson said. The investigator filed a warrant against Berry on two felony counts of criminal possession of a forged instrument, but Berry fled the region in January.

Police discovered empty containers of prescription painkillers in the Owego house, including a highly addictive narcotic cough syrup containing morphine. Jackson has asked state agencies to track down Berry's prescriptions and the doctor visits he made while he lived in Owego.

Berry was recently picked up in California, where he was living with a deaf woman, and is being held on the Tioga County warrants. A conviction on the charge carries a sentence ranging from probation to local jail time to up to seven years in state prison. Two other warrants against Berry alleging credit card theft and writing bad checks from Chemung and Monroe counties are pending.

Police work wasn't the only method used to track Berry. His alleged misdeeds have been chronicled on chat rooms used by the nation's deaf community on the Internet.

Brenda Palmigiano met Berry in Binghamton last April when she taught a defensive driving course, she said. During a visit to her Rochester home weeks later, he is accused of taking her credit card and painkillers prescribed for her to ease the pain of recent hand surgery. Berry used her credit card to purchase prescriptions for himself, she said. Palmigiano, who has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from the Rochester Institute of Technology, filed charges, but Berry had fled.

"It is so difficult to catch him when he stays at friends' houses for a little while and moves into another state," she said in an e-mail. "It is harder for us to trace him where he lives."

Palmigiano was contacted recently by a friend in California, who described Berry. Palmigiano, who had helped Westcott file charges against Berry in Owego, told the friend to call Jackson, she said.

"Too many victims were afraid to have him arrested because he can go after them and terrorize them," Palmigiano said.

Berry is addicted to narcotics and preys on families who are hearing impaired, Jackson said. He doctor-shops to get prescription drugs, chiefly narcotic cough syrup, by complaining to doctors of coughing, the investigator said.

Dottie Berry was married to Robert Berry for 12 years, and the couple had two sons, she said in an e-mail. They divorced in 1997, and Dottie Berry has raised their two children -- now teenagers -- by herself in Massachusetts, she said.

She also visits Internet chat rooms used by the deaf to keep tabs on the whereabouts of her former husband, she said.

"Our life will be normal ... when Bob is arrested," she said. "There will be no more victims."

A Framingham, Mass., detective declined to comment on an ongoing investigation of Berry in that state. Charges also are pending against Berry in Colorado, Jackson said.

© 2005 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin