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Senior citizen uses hidden cameras to catch a thief

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Updated: September 4, 2014 6:24AM

She treated him like the son she lost three years ago, spoiling Daniel Manchen with Italian delicacies carried steaming hot from her kitchen.

“He loved my meatballs — oh, he loved my meatballs,” recalled Nina Filipponio, the Italian owner of Cafe San Francesco on the Northwest Side. “My zucchini flowers — he loved it. He loved everything!”

Filipponio, a 74-year-old widow, doesn’t doubt Manchen’s love for her cooking. But she now doubts everything else about him.

Manchen, 52, was in court recently, accused of sneaking into Filipponio’s apartment above her cafe and stealing money and jewelry — alleged crimes she discovered after installing secret surveillance cameras in June.

“Do you know what?” says the woman, who has jet-black, curly hair and favors bold, oversized jewelry. “I still don’t believe it. I cry every day.”

Cafe San Francesco, with its red-white-and-green awning, sits on a busy stretch of Harlem Avenue that proud Italian-Americans consider a satellite “Little Italy.”

Inside, laminated photographs of Pope Francis and the late Pope John Paul II line the walls. Italian love songs can be found in the juke box. Bouquets of drying sage hang in a kitchen filled with fat jugs of olive oil, canned tomatoes and — on this day — a tray of freshly picked zucchini blossoms.

It’s a welcoming place where Daniel Manchen felt at home. The man known to regulars as a retired-cop-turned-barber had been coming to the cafe for years — arriving every day at 7 a.m. Sometimes, he’d call ahead and ask Filipponio if she could open a little early just for him.

“He says he loved me like his mama,” Filipponio said last week, as her daughter Maria hovered nearby with a wary eye.

Filipponio lost her only son three years ago — something too painful for the family to talk about, even now — so she was more than willing to spoil Manchen with her cooking, mostly for free, she said.

But then last year, things began to vanish. At first, Filipponio thought it was her imagination.

“Believe me, I go crazy — I think I lose my mind,” she said.

When she told Manchen that she’d lost a diamond ring that had been her mother’s, then more jewelry and cash, he told her not to worry — that surely she’d just misplaced them.

Then in May, her coin barrel went missing. So she installed hidden cameras.

What she saw on the grainy surveillance video stunned her. It was, she alleged, Manchen, sneaking into her apartment — quietly opening her purse and stealing her money on one occasion. But worse, she says, is that he was in her apartment while she was in her back garden, picking tomatoes, herbs or zucchini flowers — food that would later end up in Manchen’s belly.

“He make me very sick when I see all this stuff,” Filipponio said. “I say, ‘I can’t trust nobody today.’ How can he do this when he told me he loved me like his mom?”

Filipponio has learned a lesson, though.

Hidden cameras lurk everywhere in her business, including in her kitchen.

As batter-dipped zucchini blossoms bubbled in olive oil, she said, “Now, nobody can sneak by me.”


Twitter: @slesposito

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