In 1985, George Bratsenis was behind bars, facing trial in New Jersey for a run of audacious jewelry-store heists. But he had cooked up an elaborate plan to escape.

He would fake sickness to get himself transferred from the courtroom to a hospital. There, gunmen he’d arranged to hire would invade the facility and spring him, shooting their way to freedom.

But the plan went awry, thwarted by an undercover New Jersey state trooper posing as one of the attackers. And despite its action-movie-like setup, that escape plot would ultimately constitute only a blip on Bratsenis’ prolific, decades-long criminal career.

Now 73, Bratsenis has surfaced again in connection with another screenplay-ready case — a murder-for-hire plot that has roiled New Jersey’s political circles.

Last month, Sean Caddle — a prominent political operative in the Garden State — told a federal judge he hired Bratsenis and another man, Philadelphian Bomani Africa, to murder Michael Galdieri, son of a onetime Democratic state senator and one of Caddle’s former employees.

Prosecutors have remained tight-lipped on the details — including the motive for the 2014 slaying and how Caddle, an adviser to politicians like New Jersey State Sen. Raymond Lesniak; Africa, a former associate of MOVE; and Bratsenis, a septuagenarian stickup artist from Connecticut, entered each other’s orbit.

As the only member of the trio who has not been formally charged, Bratsenis and his purported role remain the haziest. His attorney, Charles L. Kurmay, has declined to discuss the case.

But Bratsenis is no stranger to being accused of playing a central role in a headline-grabbing crime. Court documents, police records, and news accounts dating back decades portray the Vietnam veteran as a habitual offender with a Zelig-like penchant for misdeeds that push him onto newspaper front pages.

“His history has been one of complete violation of our laws,” a New Jersey judge remarked in 1986 while sentencing him on a robbery charge. “It is difficult to say whether someone will commit another offense, but based on his past history and his attitude, there is no question that he would.”

A prolific record

By the early 1980s, Bratsenis had already developed a substantial rap sheet with arrests for robbery, drug crimes, and possession of a dangerous weapon, court records show.

His first brush with headlines came in 1981, when, while awaiting extradition from Connecticut to stand trial on Long Island on robbery charges, he won a long-shot appeal with an unusual argument.

His lawyers, according to the Hartford Courant’s report at the time, maintained the warrant clearing the way for his transfer to New York was invalid because Connecticut’s governor was traveling out of the state when she signed it. The Connecticut Supreme Court agreed.

But while free on bail awaiting that decision, court records show, Bratsenis had launched into a spree of new crimes that would keep him tied up in court for much of the next decade.

In 1984, federal authorities in Connecticut charged him with robbing two banks with an associate — Louis R. Sclafani, an Ocean County, N.J., man who went by the nickname “Trigger Lou.”

A month later, both men were indicted again — this time on charges of conspiring with a retired Stamford police narcotics squad officer, in a deadly plot to steal a multikilogram load of cocaine.

As prosecutors described it at the time, they murdered the courier, David “The Turk” Avnayim, whose body was found in the trunk of a rented car in Connecticut in the summer of 1980. Five years later, Bratsenis would plead guilty to pulling the trigger.

His conviction — and the 30-year sentence that followed — was won, in part, through testimony from Sclafani, who turned on his onetime partner in crime, joined the witness protection program, and detailed for authorities a litany of other criminal acts that he and Bratsenis had also committed, including a string of jewelry-store heists across New Jersey between 1979 and 1983 that investigators estimated led to more than $1 million in losses.

Sclafani’s change of heart came after his own brazen prison break — an effort involving a smuggled-in blow torch that he used to cut through the facility’s steel bars before lowering himself out a window on a rope made from bedsheets.

A note left in his cell, the Asbury Park Press reported at the time, read: “Gone Fishing.”

After his capture a few days later, Sclafani spent much of the next two years testifying in trials against Bratsenis and the other members of their robbery crew.

Their M.O., as Sclafani described it, was often the same. He or Bratsenis would visit the stores posing as customers, then send in an armed associate to take the jewelry by force. Sometimes they’d set fires across town, hoping to distract police.

‘A fiery escape’

But it was during the run-up to his 1985 trial for those robberies that Bratsenis launched his most brazen plot yet.

Still incarcerated on his earlier bank robbery and murder convictions at a federal prison in Pennsylvania, he saw an opportunity in his upcoming transfer to the less secure Passaic County Jail for his trial.

As he would later confess, he convinced a sister, Barbara Reider, to smuggle into the federal prison a balloon filled with drugs, which he hid in his rectum for more than a month as he awaited his move to New Jersey.

On the day his trial was supposed to begin, Bratsenis planned to burst the balloon inside of himself, triggering a violent — but temporary — physical reaction, that he hoped would require his hospitalization across town.

Had all gone according to plan, his sister would have procured the services of an armed crew to storm the hospital guns blazing to help break Bratsenis free. But the supposed hit man she drove to meet at a New Jersey diner, days before they aimed to execute their escape plan, turned out to be an undercover state trooper.

Passaic County Sheriff Edwin Englehardt announced the arrests of Bratsenis and his sister the next day.

“They would have made a fiery escape,” he said at the time. “These people wouldn’t have stopped at anything.”

Ultimately, the siblings were convicted for their escape attempt and a jury found Bratsenis guilty of the jewelry heists, too.

A plot hatched in prison

Federal prosecutors in Connecticut have said that it was while incarcerated in New Jersey for those crimes that Bratsenis met Africa, the man who last month implicated him in the murder-for-hire plot that resulted in Galdieri’s 2014 slaying.

But at the time, they had smaller ambitions. Fellow inmates on Block 2C, they hatched a plan to rob banks together once they were released, investigators have said.

Africa was serving a sentence for multiple counts of first-degree robbery, aggravated assault, and drug distribution. According to court filings, he was at one point a member of MOVE, the antigovernment group that clashed fatally with Philadelphia police in the 1980s.

Three years after Bratsenis was paroled, he and Africa pulled off their first heist — an April 2014 gunpoint robbery of the People’s United Bank in Darien, Conn.

They struck again four months later at a bank roughly 20 miles away, escaping in a white pickup truck and a silver Ford Fusion they had stolen the day before. Police later found the Fusion engulfed in flames in a parking lot across the street from the bank.

Investigators traced the truck back to one of Bratsenis’ sisters and charged him with the robberies to which he and Africa would later plead guilty.

But as a judge detailed Bratsenis’ lengthy criminal record at a bail hearing a few days after his arrest, the then 65-year-old — now white-bearded and bespectacled with, according to the Danbury NewsTimes, a smile on his face — gasped in response to hearing his extensive record read aloud.

Murder for hire

It would take investigators seven years to uncover what else they now believe Bratsenis was up to at the time of his bank-robbery spree.

Last month, Caddle, the New Jersey political consultant convicted of organizing the Galdieri murder, told a federal judge he solicited Bratsenis to carry out the slaying in April 2014 — the same month Bratsenis and Africa hit their first bank in Connecticut.

Prosecutors have declined to discuss how Caddle knew Bratsenis. But New Jersey prison records hold a potential clue. They show that Bratsenis was incarcerated at the same New Jersey prison as Caddle’s brother, who was serving a sentence for kidnapping, burglary, and robbery, between 2006 and 2010.

For his part, Africa has said he was brought into the plot by Bratsenis and on May 22 traveled with him to Galdieri’s apartment in Jersey City. They broke in shortly before 9:30 p.m., stabbed Galdieri, 52, multiple times, and set his apartment ablaze, Africa has said.

The next day, Caddle has said, he met Bratsenis in the parking lot of an Elizabeth diner and paid him “thousands of dollars” for completing the job.

‘The mistakes he has made’

A month has now passed since Caddle, 44, and Africa, 61, pleaded guilty and named Bratsenis as their coconspirator in Galdieri’s murder. Yet, prosecutors have yet to announce charges against the 73-year-old and declined to say whether they intend to prosecute him.

Amid that silence, some have raised questions about similarities they see between Galdieri’s slaying and the mysterious deaths of another politically prominent New Jersey couple — John and Joyce Sheridan, who were found fatally stabbed on Sept. 28, 2014 in their burning home in Somerset County, five months after Galdieri died. Two days after the Sheridans were killed in New Jersey, Bratsenis was arrested in Connecticut for a Sept. 26 bank robbery and found with a long-bladed knife in his car.

» READ MORE: A North Jersey murder-for-hire is ‘eerily similar’ to the 2014 deaths of John and Joyce Sheridan, their son says

For now, though, Bratsenis remains incarcerated at a federal detention center in Brooklyn, awaiting sentencing for his 2014 Connecticut bank-robbery spree.

And despite Bratsenis’ lengthy criminal past, his lawyer described him in a court filing this week as a hobbled and frail old man. He’s dying of cancer, unable to walk more than a few feet at a time without the use of an inhaler, and regretful of the long criminal career he has led, his lawyer said.

“He knows the mistakes that he has made … and has paid a price for them,” Kurmay wrote. “He regrets his poor choices and plans to apologize. … There is little else he can do.”

Staff writer Catherine Dunn contributed to this article.