Richard L. Burnitt, 27, walked into this Wyoming County village last April and identified himself as a federal agent about to conduct an undercover drug operation, village police say.
He allegedly asked the owners of a local liquor store for their help, saying he needed to use their business as a front to conduct his crime-fighting assignment.
Months later, the couple realized they'd been had, said village police.
And Burnitt -- who police say has a criminal record dating back to 1981 -- is now in the Wyoming County Jail, charged in connection with a con game police suspect may have swindled hundreds of people, both locally and across the country.
"He was obviously a smooth talker," investigating officer Christopher Ferrari said Sunday.
For the liquor store owners -- a 44-year-old man and his 38-year-old wife -- the past seven months have been a nightmare, Ferrari said. The man drank their liquor, took control of their car, threatened to have the government close down their business, slammed the woman against a wall and even said he would have the government physically harm her, police said.
The store owners, who police declined to identify, suspected a couple of months ago that the man might be a fraud, but he had them so scared that it wasn't until he was hospitalized for a minor ailment last week that they contacted police, Ferrari said.
"These people were truly fearful," Ferrari said. "They thought he was an agent, and who were they to question
him? Both were terrorized -- no ifs, ands or buts."
Ferrari has already identified businesses in Warsaw, Amherst and East Bethany that Burnitt is suspected of conning out of about $1,000, and an Oklahoma business swindled out of $2,000. Police still have hundreds of leads on companies or individuals they said the man may have conned.
Police gave the following account:
The man arrived in Warsaw in early April, telling the liquor store owners he was a federal agent, needing to use their business as a front for an undercover drug operation. The couple reluctantly complied and gave him rent-free use of a vacant office in the building where their liquor store is located.
He then set up a business of his own, called Buildings R Us, that claimed to be the only company in the United States that would dismantle homes and move them to new locations.
He fixed up his office, running up a $700 bill at a local supply store, and then placed thousands of dollars worth of advertisements in newspapers throughout the country -- including Dallas, Houston, New York City, Atlantic, and Buffalo -- about his company.
He also established a toll-free number for his business and made hundreds of phone calls, racking up a $1,000 phone bill.
"He has bills from every place you can imagine," Ferrari said.
Police believe the man also conned an Amherst company out of $60 so he could buy a cellular phone and got $700 from an East Bethany business to which he agreed to sell a building he didn't own.
An Oklahoma construction company gave him a $2,000 down payment for work never performed, police said.
But the man did more than operate his bogus business, Ferrari said.
He drank more than $100 worth of the couple's liquor, telling them the federal government would pay for the alcohol, and he once got drunk and slammed the woman store owner against a wall, Ferrari said.
The man also used the couple's car and reportedly told them that the government protected him from receiving any traffic tickets.
About two months ago, as the couple's suspicions about the "agent" were rising, he began threatening them, Ferrari said. The husband was warned that if he told anyone about the man's activities, the man would see to it that the government would file some type of charges against him and close his business, police said.
The wife was told that if she talked, he would "have her taken care of," Ferrari said. "The wife was fearful for her life."
Last Monday, when their "tenant" went into the hospital, the couple changed the locks on their business and went to the police.
Three days later, Ferrari arrested Burnitt upon his release from the hospital on an assault charge in connection with the attack on the woman. Burnitt was sent to the Wyoming County Jail, where he's being held in lieu of $10,000 bail.
Burnitt subsequently was charged with grand larceny by extortion, scheme to defraud, criminal impersonation and criminal solicitation, Ferrari said.
Ferrari learned that Burnitt is from Texas. Police said they don't know why he decided to come to Warsaw.
Ferrari declined to disclose whether Burnitt has any criminal record, but other police sources said he has been arrested numerous times in New York, Oklahoma and Texas on a variety of charges, including fraud, theft, weapons possession, forgery and drunken driving.
The investigation is continuing.
"I'm trying to track down as many people involved with this gentleman as possible," Ferrari said.