On paper, Richard J. Roetzer owns almost nothing.
Roetzer, 32, then living in North Tonawanda, filed a bankruptcy last year. In his court papers, he laid out a woeful story of financial heartbreak:
He said he did not own a home or a car that ran. His clothes and home furnishings were not worth a penny. His only possessions were $1,520 in savings and a 1978 Pontiac with no engine. He was struggling by on $3,828 a year, working for a landscaping company.
Roetzer said he owed various creditors $134,168 -- a debt that would take him at least 32 years to pay off if he used his every cent of salary.
Hearing this tale, Bankruptcy Judge Michael Kaplan discharged Roetzer's debts.
But now, a year after telling the court he was broke, Roetzer and his wife, Dana, are moving into a beautiful new home on Beach Ridge Road in Pendleton.
Town officials said the 11-acre spread of land alone cost $25,000. The house, now nearly complete, will cost at least $160,000 more. The house includes a spiral staircase, Jacuzzi, fireplace and 2 1/2 bathrooms.
The land and the home are in Dana Roetzer's name. Building inspectors said, however, that Richard Roetzer has been dealing with them on the project.
Meanwhile, according to state records, Roetzer still does not own a car. But his wife, a hospital therapist, owns seven cars and trucks, four trailers and a 27-foot boat.
Roetzer is a landscaper by trade, but he no longer owns his business. His wife now owns a landscaping company and pays her husband $73 a week to work there, according to court papers.
Although Roetzer's relatives insist the bankruptcy was filed in good faith, the situation angers Fred and Mariah Kubus. The Town of Tonawanda couple were unable to collect thousands of dollars Roetzer owed them after his bankruptcy.
The Kubuses spent almost a year in court, trying to collect a judgment for about $15,000 Roetzer owed them from a 1987 business deal involving another boat. They wound up settling the case this year for $6,000.
And they spent more than half of that on court and legal fees, Mrs. Kubus said.
"We settled for $6,000 because Rick convinced the court that he was broke, (that) he couldn't pay us any more," fumed Mrs. Kubus, Roetzer's former sister-in-law. "It's amazing a man can go into Bankruptcy Court, get excused from all his debts and then live a life of luxury. He tells the court that he owns nothing and makes less than $4,000 a year, and the court believes him."
In the past, Roetzer has put houses, cars and other possessions in the names of other family members, according to Mrs. Kubus and Roetzer's first wife, Katie Walters.
"I have been with Rick when he's signed ownership papers in the names of other people in his family," said Ms. Walters. "Rick runs the landscaping business, but that's in his wife's name, too."
Roetzer ran his company in his own name for years, calling it Executive Landscaping of Western New York. Since late 1993, the company has been called Dana Roetzer Executive Landscaping.
By keeping the landscaping firm and other possessions out of his own name, critics say, Roetzer was able to file bankruptcy and call himself destitute.
Police say Roetzer is a twice-convicted felon who has pleaded guilty to past crimes of insurance fraud and possession of stolen property. He did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
"This all stems from a very bad divorce," said his father, Robert Roetzer. "The real story is that this kid, his business just went down the tubes."
Yes, there was a divorce, agreed his ex-wife, Ms. Walters, and her sister, Mrs. Kubus. But they said that doesn't change the facts about the bankruptcy.
"Any way you look at it, this man claims he doesn't have a penny, and then he and his wife start building this beautiful house," Mrs. Kubus said. "They have a boat, all kinds of cars and trucks, but it's all in his wife's name."
Bankruptcy Court officials said they understand why creditors would be suspicious.
"His (previous) home was conveniently owned by his father, and his business is conveniently owned by his wife. He runs a landscaping business for years, and then it goes into his wife's name, and files for bankruptcy. It does look suspicious," said Daniel E. Brick, the trustee who handled the case. "But proving fraud is difficult to do."
"Unless you can show he transferred equity to his wife in anticipation of bankruptcy, there's nothing you can do about it," said William Lawson, a bankruptcy trustee for 40 years. "It does sound questionable to say your wife is paying you like slave labor."
The attorney who filed Roetzer's bankruptcy, Thomas Gaffney, is also a panel trustee for Bankruptcy Court. Gaffney, who insisted in court that the bankruptcy was legitimate, declined to respond to calls from reporters.