When Don Prince saw a news story about Steven Shapiro being arrested on charges of credit-card theft, he recognized him right away. Prince co-founded a substance-abuse treatment center for first responders. Shapiro, he said, worked there for a while. Prince said Shapiro had told people he was a fire lieutenant in Connecticut and had been at Ground Zero on Sept. 11. 2001.
By all accounts, he wasn’t. And he hadn’t.
Such hoaxes are rare, but Prince says he and his colleagues have no patience for them.
“There were 343 firefighters who died that day,” he said. “And it hits every one of us directly in the heart.”
Shapiro, 56, had been booked April 16 on charges he used credit cards he found in the Delray Beach home of a woman from whom he rented a room to buy $1,823 worth of items, including a television.
When detectives tracked him to a Fort Lauderdale physical-rehabilitation center, Shapiro reportedly confessed and told them he’d mounted the TV on his bedroom wall. “That’s probably how I blew out my disks,” he said.
Don Prince and the victim, Ilene Clark, came Thursday to the Palm Beach County Jail for an arraignment hearing, canceled at the last minute when Shapiro filed a written not-guilty plea. He remained in jail Thursday. His bail is $21,000 but he also has an out-of-county warrant for an unresolved DUI case in Central Florida.
Prince has no evidence Shapiro used his alleged subterfuge for financial gain. But he claims Shapiro used it to lobby him for a handyman’s job at the Station House Retreat treatment center in Delray Beach, which Prince co-founded. He said the center closed about a year ago when it lost financial backing.
In a January 2015 post on the Station House Retreat webpage, Shapiro identifies himself as “a retired firefighter lieutenant from Connecticut.”
“Our fire department was the first rescue squad on scene from Connecticut on that horrific morning. We were on 'the pile' for a little over two weeks,” he writes. “In November of 2002, I retired after driving an engine full of water to a fire (alone and drunk) and almost tipping it over on a carload of children. For a long time, I suffered from post traumatic stress and trauma from 9/11 and all the sights and sounds that we all go through in our profession. Today, I am sober and loving life to the fullest!”
Shapiro’s 91-year-old mother, who lives on Florida’s west coast, said Wednesday she was “not aware that he wasn’t a firefighter.” She asked that her name not be used.
“I knew that he was in jail,” the woman said. “But other than that, I did not know the bad things that he did.”
A sister, who also asked not to be identified, said Shapiro “has had a long history of lying and a lot of problems with drug and alcohol abuse.”
The sister said she cannot say for a fact if he was a firefighter or was at Ground Zero, but said, “He said the same lines for us,” adding, “I had my doubts.”
Prince spent 15 years at the Brookhaven volunteer fire department on Long Island, New York, one of them as chief. He said he was at Ground Zero the night of the attacks and for a few days after that, and later suffered depression that escalated his alcohol use.
He said Shapiro specifically told him he was at the fire department in Fairfield, Connecticut, a town about 60 miles northeast of the World Trade Center.
Fairfield Fire Department Deputy Chief Kyran Dunn told The Palm Beach Post this week the agency has no record of Shapiro working there. A photo provided to The Post shows Shapiro wearing a yellow helmet that says "Fairfield Fire Department” with a 4-digit number, his name and “lieutenant.” Shapiro’s Facebook page has a close-up of the helmet.
Dunn said it’s “contrived.” He said it’s the wrong color and would have just three digits.
In any event, Dunn said, while his department was among the scores from surrounding areas that scrambled that morning, units stopped at Yonkers Raceway, a horse track about 20 miles north of Ground Zero, and went down to assist only in the ensuing days. Dunn said the department doesn’t intend to pursue Shapiro.
“I met Mr. Shapiro, and my radar went off right away,” he said.
Feal said that, as with many traumatic events, people who were at Ground Zero often can tell exactly where they were and what they were doing. Feal, who suffered serious injuries to a foot at Ground Zero, said he can.
But Shapiro “was very vague in his answer,” Feal said. “He changed the subject to my work.”
Ben Chevat, who as a congressional aide helped write the legislation that created the victim compensation funds, said it’s highly unlikely someone can get any benefits unless he or she really was there, since the programs have strict standards and require extensive documentation.
On Shapiro’s Facebook page, in posts referring to Sept. 11, someone wrote, "You really fooled us Steve, but the whole 9/11 thing is beyond bad.” Another said, “I have no tolerance for anyone who steals Valor!”
A woman named Nina Oneill who said she was a friend, said in a Facebook post that Shapiro “most certainly was a 9/11 first responder NYC Fire Fighter.” She posted a photo that showed a firefighter, head in hand, sitting on a sidewalk, his “FDNY” jacket hanging on a rail. “He has severe PTSD from it,” she said.
A person posted that the firefighter bore little resemblance to Shapiro. A woman who identified herself as Shapiro’s cousin said it wasn’t him, adding, “Nina, you have been duped, apparently along with many other people.”
Neither Oneill nor the woman claiming to be Shapiro’s cousin responded to messages from The Post.
Palm Beach County Court records show Shapiro was arrested in 2005 and in December 2010 for writing worthless checks of $800 and $5,000, respectively. Court officials said he pleaded guilty in the 2005 case and was sentenced to 12 months of probation. The 2010 charge was dropped.
Jail records also show Shapiro was arrested in 2004 on a warrant from Fairfield. Police there said the warrant was for first-degree larceny, for more than $20,000, and for violation of probation. The Connecticut Department of Corrections shows he was in prison from May 2004 to June 2005 when he was paroled to Florida. Shapiro also was involved in numerous court cases in Connecticut, Arizona, and California, according to databases.