Paul Blarr sold diamonds and other jewelry to customers at his Williamsville store for 20 years. Some of his customers became family friends.
But the 47-year-old businessman admitted Friday that he schemed to defraud at least 89 customers out of $630,000 over a 16-year period from 1998 to this March by selling them fake diamonds and other counterfeit jewelry.
He pleaded guilty in Erie County Court to one count of scheming to defraud his 89 victims and 10 counts of third-degree grand larceny.
Blarr made no statement other than pleading guilty, but Judge Michael F. Pietruszka read the names of all 89 victims listed in the scheming to defraud charge as well as the names of 10 victims who were listed in the grand larceny counts, along with the dates they were victimized.
Blarr faces a maximum prison term of 50 years behind bars when he is sentenced July 25. The judge allowed him to remain free on $1,500 bail so he can make arrangements to make restitution before sentencing.
“The business is closed and he is no longer working in the jewelry business,” said defense attorney Charles J. Marchese after the court appearance. “This has been devastating to him and his family. He’s not running from what happened here, and the judge recognizes that.”
Prosecutors and police said there may be more victims who left jewelry with Blarr to repair or sell on consignment and who either received fake items in return or never got their items back or money from consignment sales.
“It’s not like someone is taking your money to plow your driveway and not showing up,” said Amherst Police Capt. Enzio G. Villalta. “This is not some home improvement scam where they take your money. In this case he was taking personal property from people that they cherished. A lot of tragic stories are involved.”
Katherine Eberlin, of East Amherst, had known Blarr for 20 years and had considered him a friend to whom she would send friends and family to do business. When she first heard the news, Eberlin said she felt she didn’t need to check her diamonds because they had been friends for so long.
“I thought he may have done that to other people, but he wouldn’t do that to me,” she said.
Blarr has promised to return those items to their owners and pay restitution to his other customers, prosecutors said. If he does not, he could face additional charges, they said.
Marchese, meanwhile, questioned the $630,000 prosecutors pegged as the total amount fraudulently gained by his client.
“We do not believe the amount to be in that range,” Marchese said. “We believe the numbers may have been inflated by using appraised values as opposed to monies actually paid to my client.”
District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said Blarr took more than just money from the victims.
“These items have tremendous sentimental value,” he said. “You can’t put a price on breaking someone’s heart.”
He cited the case of one customer who learned he had a fatal illness and bought a diamond ring from Blarr to give to his wife before he died, to make up for not being able to buy one when they got married years ago.
The man eventually died, Sedita said, and now the widow is left with a fake diamond.
Other victims included a man who made multiple jewelry purchases from Blarr’s RSNP Diamond Exchange and Amherst Diamond Exchange over a 10-year period, prosecutors said.
Sedita said a prison sentence would be appropriate in this case because of the number of victims and the amount of money involved.
Each grand larceny count carries a maximum seven-year prison term while the scheming to defraud charge carries a four-year term, meaning Blarr could face up to 74 years in prison if the sentences run consecutively.
But Sedita said the maximum sentence in a non-homicide case is capped at 50 years.
Blarr was arrested March 21 following an investigation by the Amherst Police Department into allegations that he was selling phony diamonds and other jewelry, according to Assistant District Attorney Brian P. Dassero.
In publicizing the arrest, Amherst police asked customers to check the authenticity of any jewelry they bought from Blarr and to contact police. Eventually, almost 200 former customers contacted detectives, Villalta said.
Among his unwitting victims were several police officers as well as Mary Baty, who was among the 89 customers listed in the scheming to defraud charge.
She told The Buffalo News in March that after she learned of Blarr’s arrest, she went to another Williamsville jeweler and asked him to examine the diamond she said she purchased from Blarr four years ago for $6,300.
It was worth $500, she was told.
“I’d planned to leave this diamond to my daughter. Now she can have it and buy an iPhone with it,” a disgusted Baty said.
For Baty, Blarr also was a family friend.
“When his wife had their first daughter, I gave them a baby gift,” Baty said. “I desperately want to believe Paul was scammed and did not do this knowingly. I want some explanation. I want something that makes sense, that he needed this money for an illness, a tragedy, that he needed our money more than we did.”
News Staff Reporters Jane Kwiatkowski and Deidre Williams contributed to this report.