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Falls felon takes big gamble on diversion

LOCKPORT – A Niagara Falls man is risking up to 19 years in state prison after pleading guilty to two felonies Thursday in Niagara County Court.

Michael J. Paonessa III, 26, of Niagara Street, admitted to third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance and third-degree burglary.

Judge Sara Sheldon admitted him to the judicial diversion program of court-supervised drug treatment, which could result in the felonies being reduced to misdemeanors with nonjail sentences if Paonessa succeeds in treatment.

However, Sheldon questioned Paonessa’s attitude and said she was not optimistic about his chances of success. Some state prison time will be mandatory if he fails to beat his drug problems.

Paonessa, who has a previous felony burglary conviction from 2011, admitted selling cocaine July 15 and burglarizing an apartment building on Rainbow Boulevard in the Falls Jan. 10. He owes $180 in restitution to the county Drug Task Force for the drug deal and $229 in restitution for a small refrigerator stolen in the burglary, Assistant District Attorney Laura T. Bittner said.