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Almost half a million dollars in stolen cash was returned Tuesday to a 78-year-old Hamburg widow by a thief who later pleaded guilty to taking the money.

Before Ricky Bob John, 26, of Michigan was allowed to plead guilty to a charge of grand larceny, he had to fulfill a promise to return the money.

That was done at 9 a.m. in a Hamburg bank, when two unidentified women described as acquaintances of John showed up with a gym bag stuffed with cash, according to Capt. Thomas M. Best, chief of the Hamburg Police Department's Detective Bureau.

"It was unbelievable. I haven't seen that much cash in my whole life," Best said. "It took upwards of two hours to count and recount the money before it was locked in the bank's safe. The biggest bill was $100."

The money was stolen on the afternoon of July 1 after John approached the woman at her Rogers Road home and began discussing paving her driveway. She later awoke from a nap and discovered a 100-pound bedroom safe containing the money and two expensive rings was missing.

An intensive investigation by Hamburg Detectives Henry Mach and Mike Sauer pointed to John as responsible for the theft.

"There were two accomplices, but we don't expect any further arrests," said Best, who declined to say what led them to John.

John had been arrested in Naugatuck, Conn., earlier this month in a similar theft, and his name was circulated nationally, alerting Hamburg police.

"If there is a lesson to be learned in this, it's to the elderly that Mr. John is only one of many who are predators of the elderly, and it is not a good idea to keep valuables in your home," Best said. "Our victim has learned her lesson and states she will now keep only $10 or $15 at home for groceries."

Best praised Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark for his assistance in working out the plea deal that ensured return of the money and $6,000 in restitution for the rings, which are gone.

"I don't know of any other DA who could have engineered such an amiable conclusion other than Frank Clark," he said.

Clark was quick to credit police for initiating the negotiations that led to the return of the money.

Under terms of the plea deal, John will be sentenced to time served and five years' probation.

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