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The man lived in a cluttered, battered Buffalo home and was in need of help when Peter Saraceno first met him years ago while delivering the mail.

So Saraceno befriended the man, a fellow veteran. He helped him move into a better house, he ran errands for him, he washed his clothes.

But Saraceno also embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the man’s life savings to finance a gambling habit, according to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.

Saraceno, 63, a retired postal carrier from West Seneca, is accused of stealing roughly $400,000 from a 78-year-old who uses a wheelchair over the last seven years, said Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III.

Saraceno pleaded guilty to second-degree grand larceny Friday before Erie County Judge Michael D’Amico and faces a maximum of 15 years behind bars when sentenced Sept. 27.

The relationship between the mail carrier and his customer goes back at least 20 years to when the man was a stop on Saraceno’s route in the Bailey-Delavan neighborhood, Sedita said.

“He delivers the mail and starts to strike up a relationship with him,” Sedita said Friday. “The victim becomes more and more dependent on this guy and starts to trust him.”

The friendship grew to the point where Saraceno eventually became a joint account holder on one of the victim’s bank accounts, said Assistant District Attorney Candace K. Vogel, who prosecutes financial elder abuse.

Saraceno made ATM withdrawals, wrote checks to himself and made wire transfers over a period between 2006 and February of this year, the prosecutors said.

He admitted to using the money to finance his casino gambling, prosecutors added.

In fact, statements made by Saraceno to authorities indicate he felt he was owed for all the help he gave the man over the years.

“It’s financial rape,” Sedita said, “and it’s becoming more and more prevalent.”

As more people live longer and the region’s population ages, the elderly – and their life savings – are becoming more of a target, Sedita said.

He cited several cases in the past year alone where people have been prosecuted for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting elderly victims.

“The number of cases that have been brought to our offices has swelled and the variety of crimes against the elderly has increased,” Vogel said.

“How many of our senior citizens do not have immediate family here locally and they’re willing to accept a friendly hand or someone who sounds like a friend?” Vogel said.

The District Attorney’s Office was eventually tipped off about the Saraceno case when the victim wrote out a $31 check that bounced.

“He knows what he did toward the end was not right, but I think he’s being cast in a bad light,” said Samuel P. Davis, Saraceno’s attorney. “Mr. Saraceno cared for this gentleman for well over two decades.”

Saraceno was essentially the man’s primary caregiver, and when their relationship began, the mail carrier had no idea the man had any money, considering his living conditions, Davis said.

Saraceno helped the man move to a better neighborhood, he visited him, he ran his errands and eventually got power of attorney to help him take care of his personal affairs while in a Batavia nursing home, Davis said.

Saraceno, though, had troubles. His wife got sick, he was in debt, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and started gambling to relieve his depression, Davis said.

“I’m not justifying what he did, but I think his financial burdens got the better of him,” Davis said. “This is not some horrible person. The situation got the best of him and when things got too tough, he may have abused that relationship.”

email: jrey@buffnews.com