Peter Saraceno admitted stealing $400,000 from a customer on his mail route, a veteran like himself whom he befriended and helped for many years. His embezzling has left the disabled elderly man destitute and living in the VA hospital in Batavia.
Saraceno blamed post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from exposure to Agent Orange when he was in the military more than 40 years ago. He said PTSD prompted him to steal the money starting in 2006 and gamble it away at area casinos.
The judge expressed doubts, though. He acknowledged Friday at Saraceno’s sentencing that he was not an expert on Agent Orange and PTSD but questioned whether Saraceno’s service at bases in Georgia and Germany in the 1960s caused the disease.
“I see two people,” Erie County Judge Michael L. D’Amico said. “A guy who helps others but likes to help himself.”
He also questioned Saraceno’s plan to make restitution, saying that with a $20,000 down payment and $495 monthly payments, it would take 63 years to reimburse the 78-year-old victim.
The judge sentenced the West Seneca man to one to three years in prison.
Assistant District Attorney Candace K. Vogel, who prosecutes financial abuse of the elderly, also questioned Saraceno’s claim, noting that PTSD does not include stealing.
“It’s disgusting that he blames it on anything but his greed,” she told the judge.
She noted that the victim is 100 percent disabled and confined to the Batavia hospital.
Samuel P. Davis, Saraceno’s attorney, said his client did not blame his conduct totally on PTSD. He said the PTSD led to his gambling in an attempt at self-medication.
The victim had told the judge at a sentencing proceeding last week that he has become destitute because of the crime.
“I had a real good friend that worked for the post office, and he took me to the cleaners, took everything I had,” the victim said. “I can’t even fend for myself.”
The relationship between the retired mail carrier and his victim dates back at least 20 years to when the victim was a stop on Saraceno’s route in the Bailey-East Delavan neighborhood, District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said in July when Saraceno pleaded guilty to second-degree larceny.
“He delivers the mail and starts to strike up a relationship with him,” Sedita said. “The victim becomes more and more dependent on this guy and starts to trust him.”
Saraceno helped the victim move into a better house, ran errands for him and washed his clothes.
The friendship grew to the point where Saraceno eventually became a joint account holder on one of the victim’s bank accounts, Vogel said at the time of the guilty plea.
Saraceno made ATM withdrawals, wrote checks to himself and made wire transfers between 2006 and February of this year, the prosecutors said.
He admitted spending the money on casino gambling, prosecutors added.
Statements made by Saraceno to authorities indicate he felt he was owed for all the help he gave the man over the years.
At Friday’s sentencing, Saraceno, 63, apologized to the victim and Saraceno’s family. He said he would dedicate his life to making things better for both.
D’Amico said letters from Saraceno’s family and friends appealed for leniency. The judge said he saw a man with a dual personality, one who does nice things for people but also embezzled $400,000 from an elderly man.
He also said that not all the money went to the casino.
“You had a pretty good lifestyle,” the judge told the defendant.
The judge imposed the minimum prison sentence and ordered restitution. Saraceno had faced up to 15 years in prison.