Concern turns to resentment for players in Super Bowl pool after organizer is found in Fla.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Concern over the disappearance of Staten Islander John Kambakakis, a familiar face in his Dongan Hills neighborhood, has turned to anger and resentment for many who once considered him a friend.
The stocky Greek grandfather, known locally for the annual Super Bowl box pool that law enforcement sources and participants say he ran, has not been seen or heard from by bettors since they say he collected their money in the days leading up to the Big Game.
Kambakakis' disappearance on Jan. 28, four days before the Super Bowl, galvanized dozens of residents to join a massive search effort launched by his two daughters, who spread word of their father's disappearance on Facebook and through the media.
"Dad, we love you, we want you to come home. We hope you're OK," his daughter, Kristina, told the Advance on Jan. 30 after reporting him missing. "We're asking everyone to please say a prayer."
Many feared the worst.
"When it first happened, we thought he was dead. We thought somebody killed him," a Dongan Hills deli owner said. "He had a lot of money, carried a lot of money."
Concerned for his longtime customer's safety, the shop owner taped a "Missing" flier to his deli counter the day he learned Kambakakis had disappeared.
"The first thing we did was put a missing sign up because we're friendly with the guy," said a deli employee, who has bet with Kambakakis for the past four years. "We thought he was actually gone. People are saying, 'Oh poor guy,' stuff like that."
The initial expressions of sympathy turned to declarations of disgust 10 days later, when Kambakakis was spotted 1,000 miles away at a 7-Eleven store in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Police closed the book on the 63-year-old Staten Islander's case after he was found in Florida -- without any complaints filed against him by bettors, there was nothing criminal for authorities to pursue -- but the gamblers who paid into his pool aren't letting him off the hook, even if they haven't formally reported their grievances to police.
Upon learning that their former customer had resurfaced in the Sunshine State, the "Missing" sign at the deli was altered to read "Thief," with the addendum that he took $25,000 "from his friends."
"People see [the sign] now and they're like, 'What an [expletive]," a deli employee and pool participant said. "The guy took everybody's money and left."
Multiple pool participants estimated that the money Kambakakis allegedly collected for this year's contest totaled at least $25,000.
They say he ran multiple boxes with varying buy-ins and had been doing so for close to two decades without controversy.
"He had a $10 pool, two $20 pools, two $50 pools and a $100 pool," a participant who dropped $1,000 on this year's contest said. "It's $25,000 [at stake]."
Every year, in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, bettors say Kambakakis would walk the neighborhood, popping into businesses to chat and promote his endeavor.
"Everybody knew, everybody knew," the deli owner said of the Super Bowl pool. "Everyone. Pretty much every person that worked [at Staten Island University Hospital, where Kambakakis worked for years as a janitor] knew that."
"We always trusted him," said the deli owner, who did not personally pay into this year's Super Bowl pool, but confirmed that his father, brother, son and store customers had bought boxes. "I never thought that he would do that to anybody."
The $25,000 that Kambakakis is believed to have collected before disappearing in late January may actually be an underestimate, according to multiple bettors, who suspect he re-sold some boxes this year.
One participant recounted what he considered odd.
Fred Ariemma said he had requested box No. 21, which was already taken. "He erased a guy's number and said 'I'll tell him I'll give him a different number.' He erased it for my number."
Another echoed those feelings.
"It was a little sketchy," a deli employee said of the Super Bowl pool. "Like the $100 boxes -- the sheet was ripped right down the middle...I was like, 'John, you can't even read this paper, you can't read the names.' He goes, 'Oh, don't worry about it. I'm going to fix it up.' So I didn't think anything of it, I just paid him. That's it."
The worker said Kambakakis left the deli with $3,500 in cash the day before he went missing, which wasn't uncommon -- "always had a ton of money...he couldn't even close his wallet."
That was the last any of the pool participants heard from him.
It's unknown whether even Kambakakis' family has been in contact with him since he resurfaced on Feb. 7 because his daughters, Kristina and Maria, stopped communicating with the Advance after he was found.
"One day when I have time I'm going to have to take a vacation to Daytona Beach and go look for him," Ariemma chuckled.
He doesn't see the point in reporting any of this to police.
"It's a waste of time, I think. Talking to the cops," Ariemma said. "What, are they going to go down there? They got better things to do than looking for that guy."