Suspicions of the crime reached the police earlier this year.

But before Town of Tonawanda Police Lt. William H. Krier could break the case of the immense fleecing, he first had to find the victim.

Concerned people had heard talk about a cleric’s plight but did not know his name.

It took the lieutenant a couple of weeks to find him: a 91-year-old retired priest taken advantage of by a jobless, addicted gambler for more than $500,000 over a decade.

Then it took a couple of visits before the embarrassed cleric told Krier everything.

The case against Richard P. Kesick culminated with his sentencing Wednesday by Erie County Judge Thomas P. Franczyk. He sentenced Kesick to two to six years in prison for his third-degree grand larceny conviction.

Police and prosecutors are not surprised the crime went unreported for so long. That’s common about elder abuse, they say.

The amount surprised them, however. “I was shocked,” Krier said. “Even Kesick was shocked.”

But the priest left little doubt about how much was stolen after he revealed to police what had happened.

Kesick had lied to the priest about an inheritance Kesick said he was to receive. One of Kesick’s ploys was asking the priest for loans until the inheritance arrived.

The priest kept receipts that Kesick had signed each time he would take money from the priest, Krier said. And the priest also saved hours worth of telephone messages that Kesick had left promising to pay back the money.

“He believed he was getting the money back,” Krier said of the priest.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. sedita III called Kesick’s prison sentence appropriate.

“It’s rare we see a case where someone steals $500,000 from an individual, let alone a priest,” Sedita said. “When you see a half-million-dollar theft, from a member of the clergy, that raises a lot of eyebrows”

“… We’re seeing more and more major financial elder abuse.”

In recent months, Sedita’s office has prosecuted a nursing home administrator who admitted stealing more than $110,000 from a 69-year-old resident of an Amherst assisted-living and retirement home. A paralegal at a law firm’s Buffalo office admitted stealing more than $311,000 from a 77-year-old heiress.

“That’s why we’re getting more concerned about financial elder abuse and trying to propose changes in the law,” the DA said.

For 11 years, between June 21, 2001, and July 16 of this year, Kesick told lie after lie to the priest, even impersonating a judge over the telephone to steal more money from him.

Kesick, 57, of Laird Avenue, told the priest he needed money to pay ransom to his kidnappers and cover medical bills for a stab wound. He pretended to be an insurance company representative to give the priest false assurance that the money would be repaid. At one point, the retired priest came up with $20,000 to $30,000 for ransom.

Sedita has called Kesick “an especially loathsome and despicable swindler.” Defense attorney Robert J. Cutting called him an addicted gambler, who looked at the retired priest as “an easy source of funds.”

Cutting sought leniency for Kesick, in part because of what he called his client’s “horrific gambling addiction.” Kesick could lose as much as $15,000 at the casino in a weekend.

Cutting also cited health issues for Kesick’s wife, his lack of arrests in recent years and letters of support from neighbors showing that Kesick is “not a totally useless human being.”

“I did take the money and acted like a fool,” Kesick said at his sentencing hearing. “I shouldn’t have done it.”

Kesick had faced seven years in prison; he pleaded guilty last October.

While his gambling addiction explains Kesick’s motivation, it does not excuse it, Franczyk said as he delivered the prison sentence.

The judge ordered $500,000 in restitution.

Kesick has also signed a confession of judgment for that amount, but “I hold out no illusions this will ever get paid,” Franczyk said.

The priest did not appear in court. Kesick wore jeans and an untucked shirt. He did not look like a cunning schemer who could steal so much money.

But his appearance revealed his method, Krier said. Kesick played to the priest’s sympathy with his “sad-sack, down-on-his-luck” appearance, Krier said.

Sedita has said the priest invested well decades ago to accumulate so much money.

Kesick, jailed since his arrest July 16, is married and has not had a job in five years. His wife, who watched the sentencing, declined to comment as she left the courtroom.

Kesick’s criminal past includes convictions for burglary, forgery, arson and criminal possession of stolen property.