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EX-CORONER SPARED JAIL FOR MONEY THEFT

Former Niagara County Coroner Steven A. Gerhardt avoided jail time Tuesday for misappropriating more than $84,000 customers paid in advance for funerals at a mortuary he owned in the 1990s.

County Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza told Gerhardt, "Apparently there were people interviewed for the presentence report who want very much to see you in jail."

But they won't get their wish. Sperrazza said Gerhardt is a first-time offender, and restitution has been taken care of, so she sentenced him to three years' probation, 50 hours in the county's work program and 50 hours of community service. Gerhardt also must write letters of apology to all the former customers whose money was taken, as well as maintain a job.

That job won't be as a funeral director. "He's going to lose his license as sure as we're standing here," defense attorney George V.C. Muscato said.

However, since the charges to which he admitted -- petit larceny and second-degree falsifying business records -- weren't felonies, the Democrat is free to run in the 2007 election to try to win his old job back.

Gerhardt, 37, of Cambria, served 12 years as District 4 coroner before losing in last fall's election.

Gerhardt and his partner, Donald Held, sold Gaul Funeral Home in Lockport to Keystone Corp. on Dec. 10, 1998, for $250,000. The sale contract listed 47 customers who had prepaid for funerals, but there were 16 others that Keystone Corp. wasn't told about.

That was because Gerhardt, instead of placing their money in an interest-bearing account as required by state law, had taken it. He said it was used to pay the home's bills.

"People weren't paying their bills on time," Gerhardt said. "We had a lot of receivables. I got backed into a corner, and that's what I had to do." He said he was in the process of putting the money back in the trust account when Keystone fired him as the funeral home's manager.

Muscato told Sperrazza that Gerhardt expected to remain as manager of Gaul Funeral Home, but the company was trying to transfer him.

Muscato and District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III agreed that the amount stolen was $84,378.85 but that restitution was made when Keystone replenished the trust account by not paying Gerhardt and Held each $9,000 a year they were supposed to receive in exchange for agreeing not to open a competitive funeral home.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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