Croce Giambanco and Brennan Baker were like father and son.
The owner of Nino’s Café, a popular beachside pizzeria that has mainland locations as well, hired Baker when he was just a boy, impressed by his work ethic.
The two worked together for more than a decade, as Giambanco taught Baker the ins and outs of the restaurant industry. He co-signed on a car loan for Baker and eventually promoted him to manager of the Easter Lily Lane pizzeria, across from Humiston Park.
Then, one day, the business owner was forced to notify police that his long-time employee was stealing from the business. It was a call Giambanco said he never wanted to make.
Giambanco and his attorney twice attempted to settle the $21,000 dispute out of court, offering Baker the option to repay the stolen funds, along with an outstanding personal loan. But, Brennan Baker, also known as “Red,” stopped making payments Jan. 31 and the business owner finally recommended criminal prosecution.
“It broke my heart,” Giambanco told Vero Beach 32963. “It’s not even the money. I treated him like my own son.”
Baker, of Vero Beach, stole at least $9,000 from the restaurant’s cash register, payroll and ATM machine, according to court documents. He also failed to make payments on a car loan, cosigned by his boss, which cost Giambanco an additional $13,000.
Baker, 29, pleaded no contest to felony third-degree grand theft last week and is set to be sentenced in June. His negotiated plea, arranged by defense attorney Andrew Metcalf and prosecutor Patrick O’Brien, calls for a withhold of adjudication pending completion of two years’ probation.
Baker, reached by phone, said he feels remorse every day. It was a bad time in his life and he didn’t make the right choice. There are circumstances that people don’t understand, he said.
“I love Croce. He was like a father to me. He taught me everything I know about the restaurant industry. I have nothing but respect for him.”
Baker, who is now employed, agreed to pay $8,000 in restitution to Giambanco by his sentencing hearing and an additional $5,000 by Oct. 1. He did not admit guilt and claimed he agreed to the deal because it was in his best interest. He had never been in trouble with law enforcement before.
Third-degree grand theft is punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
It was September 2016 when Giambanco noticed something was amiss with the restaurant’s finances. Some employees said Baker wasn’t paying them on time or at all. The cash register wasn’t balancing with sales receipts at the end of the night. Money was also missing from the ATM. Only a few people, including Baker, had keys to access the machine.
“I gave him all my trust,” said Giambanco, who at the time was grieving the loss of his wife. “I let him run Nino’s Café on the beach. He was the manager. Then, he started hanging with the wrong crowd. “
Baker admitted to his boss he had been skimming money from the other employees, according to court records. Later, when Giambanco’s lawyer was present, he confessed to taking nearly $9,000 from the restaurant – $3,300 from payroll, $4,300 from the register and $1,200 from the ATM.
The police were notified, but the owner wanted to handle the issue out of court.
“During the conversation Mr. Baker readily confessed to the theft and became very emotional, apologizing to Mr. Giambanco and [asking] if he could make it up in some way,” attorney Robert Meadows wrote police.
“At first Mr. Giambanco was very reluctant to work with Mr. Baker and just wanted to involve law enforcement. After some discussion, Mr. Giambanco agreed to allow Mr. Baker to make payments to him to pay back the full amount of the theft and the moneys Mr. Baker had borrowed from Mr. Giambanco.”
Baker promised payment in two weeks, but by November no money had been paid, according to court documents.
The police were notified again, and this time a detective with the Vero Beach Police Department interviewed Baker. According to court documents, Baker confessed again over the phone and said he was trying to pay his boss back by putting his boat for sale. Baker no longer had a job and money to pay off the debt was hard to come by, he said.
He admitted to making a mistake. He said he believed if he had been honest with his boss from the beginning, Giambanco would have given him the money and he would have never had to break the law.
The restaurant owner again decided to be lenient and keep the case out of court. The parties made a financial agreement. Baker would pay $3,000 immediately and then make $150 payments each week for no more than 32 months. Twenty-one dollars, or 6 percent, would go toward interest. The remaining $129 would cover a portion of the debt’s principal balance.
Baker’s initials are on the Dec. 6 document next to a clause that said if he defaulted on the deal, his boss would exercise all legal remedies against him. Seven months later Giambanco’s attorney wrote police calling for a criminal prosecution. Baker had paid nearly $3,800 but had since missed four out of 10 payments.
“I was trying not to ruin his life,” Giambanco lamented. “Young people make mistakes. I was trying to help him out. I gave him chances. Finally, I said, ‘Enough is enough.’”