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Facebook friend or foe? WNY native Paul Ceglia claims he co-founded the Internet phenomena that changed the world. But who is he?

Paul Ceglia claims to own 50 percent of Facebook.

Based on a Goldman Sachs valuation of the social-networking colossus, that would make him worth $25 billion and rank 13th on the Forbes list of the world's richest people.

On the streets of Ceglia's hometown, he and his lawsuit are only worth eye rolls and wary chuckles from folks who prefer to be diplomatic. Many who know Ceglia aren't so polite.

"The whole time I've ever known him, he was into conning people," said Ira Warboys, a Wellsville High School classmate of Ceglia. "Any way he could make easy money, that's what he did for a living.

"He can talk a real good story, but in the long run, he's nothing but a joke."

It's easy to generate a reputation in a community of about 5,000 people, and Ceglia is widely known around Wellsville as a grifter. His checkered history includes a felony drug conviction in Texas, a trespassing conviction in Florida, real-estate swindles and a slew of affidavits from jilted customers.

"He's just a shyster," Greg Conklin said.

Conklin sued Ceglia over farmland in Livingston County. It turned out Ceglia didn't own the property Conklin thought he had purchased.

"I'd really like to see a guy like that do a few years," Conklin said. "I hope he gets painted for what he is in a court of law. His character should discredit any claims against anything he says he's earned. He's a lowlife."

Ceglia last year filed a lawsuit against Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Ceglia stated he signed a contract with Zuckerberg in 2003, when Facebook was in the idea stage, for half ownership in exchange for seed money.

Zuckerberg admitted to signing a contract with Ceglia -- but not for Facebook. They met through a Craigslist advertisement Ceglia placed in search of development help for a street-mapping database called StreetFax. They signed an agreement, but Zuckerberg has insisted the documents Ceglia claims to possess were forged to insert Facebook into the deal.

Facebook's attorneys were just recently granted access to review the alleged documents.

"Paul Ceglia has a proven track record of defrauding innocent people and forging documents," Facebook attorney Orin Snyder said. "This lawsuit is his latest scam."

Ceglia said he waited seven years to pursue his stake because he forgot about the contract and didn't rediscover the documentation until he gathered paperwork to defend himself against multiple criminal charges in October 2009.

The Allegany County District Attorney's office charged Ceglia and his wife, Iasia Ceglia, with first-degree scheme to defraud and 12 counts of fourth-degree grand larceny for allegedly defrauding customers of his wood-pellet business out of about $200,000 in undelivered prepaid orders. Allegany Pellets LLC was subsequently shut down by Andrew M. Cuomo, then New York's attorney general.

Ceglia ignored repeated attempts by The Buffalo News to interview him for this story. He didn't return phone messages left at his home next to Allegany Pellets on Hanover Hill Road or his address that's listed in the phone book, his parents' house on Truax Road. A handwritten note was left with a young woman who answered the front door at the Truax address but said Ceglia wasn't home. Ceglia didn't reply to a request sent through his Facebook page.

> Shadowy background

About the nicest things people who've dealt with Paul Ceglia can say about him is that he always has been "mysterious."

In the index of his Wellsville High 1991 senior yearbook, the only page he is listed on is the one with his senior photo. Of 113 seniors depicted in that year's class, Ceglia's was one of only nine with a blank thumbnail biography and no baby photo. The man who claims to own half of Facebook barely appeared in his own yearbook and declined to share so much as his favorite saying or best memories.

Ceglia apparently wasn't involved in any academic, sports or music groups. Among the 125 names listed on the "most likely to" pages, Ceglia's doesn't appear anywhere.

Perhaps Erica Sale Ferlazzo, voted "most opinionated" and "class gossip," would be able to share some insight on Ceglia.

"He was not popular, not very well-known," Ferlazzo said from her home in Virginia. "I don't think people even know him well now.

"I was kind of friendly with him. All I remember is he wanted to go out with me and my parents wouldn't let me. They were not fans.

"I liked him because he was different. He really was mysterious. He had a little bit of a bad-boy image, but he wasn't. He was always nice to me."

Ferlazzo's was an uncommon sentiment heard over the course of two dozen interviews this week around Wellsville and with those who've done business with Ceglia and his family.

Ceglia's father, Carmine Ceglia, rents out commercial properties around town. Four Main Street shopkeepers declined to speak on the record for fear of eviction or retribution.

"When you shake Paul Ceglia's hand, you better count your fingers afterward," said one Main Street merchant who declined to give his name.

Kenneth Dewert presumably hadn't heard that handshake line when he drove an hour from Savona, near Bath in Steuben County, to Ceglia's wood-pellet business on Hanover Hill to confront him.

Like dozens of other customers, Dewert thought he had found an Internet bargain on wood pellets to heat his home over the 2009-10 winter season. He got some friends together and prepaid $2,280 for 24 tons, enough to fill a tractor-trailer.

And, as had happened with dozens of other customers, the delivery never came.

Embarrassed to be the point man on a purchase for others who trusted him, Dewert, his wife and a friend drove to Allegany Pellets for answers.

"I felt like a heel," Dewert said. "I went to his house, and it was a shanty. The photo they used online was this huge farm. It looked great. But it was a makeshift operation.

"He came out and tried to shake my hand. I said 'Unless you got money in that hand, I don't want to shake your hand.' He said it was all tied up in sawdust. So I said 'Show me the sawdust.' He pointed to a small pile. I said, 'You mean to tell me that's my money?' "

> Dicey dealings

In the fall of 2008, Conklin was awarded a $3,000 judgment against Ceglia, who sold him land he did not own. Conklin recalled walking the 17-acre parcel Ceglia tried to sell him in Livingston County four years ago. Ceglia spoke proudly about how his nascent StreetFax venture would be a success, but nothing about Facebook, which by then was an international sensation.

"He was talking about photos of streets and intersections and police were going to use it in major cities," Conklin said of StreetFax. "He never did mention Facebook."

Conklin wasn't Ceglia's only botched real-estate deal. In May 2005, he pleaded no contest to trespassing in Florida while allegedly showing off part of a commercial orange grove he didn't own but intended to sell.

Before that, he had a contradictory relationship with Kristin Van Huysen, a woman with whom real-estate records show Ceglia owned homes in Wellsville and Seattle.

Court records state that Van Huysen won a $5,807 judgment against Ceglia in September 1995, yet they were arrested together on felony drug charges 17 months later in Texas.

They were in possession of more than 400 grams of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic found in mushrooms. Ceglia pleaded guilty in an arrangement that dropped charges against Van Huysen. Ceglia received a 10-year suspended jail sentence and a $25,000 fine, $10,000 of which was suspended.

Van Huysen has been linked to a project that has come under scrutiny for exploiting Iraq War veterans. Her Wellsville Veterans Project was to provide affordable housing for the transition to stateside life.

Warboys, the Wellsville classmate and a former Marine, moved into one of Van Huysen's homes. He called the place borderline habitable but agreed to fix up the property as needed in exchange for rent. It wasn't until later that he learned of the Wellsville veterans program.

"There were six veterans, and not one of us heard about the program," Warboys said. "They were making money off us with regular rent plus money from the government."

Van Huysen didn't return several messages seeking comment from The Buffalo News.

Warboys recalled another odd incident involving Ceglia. A friend of Warboys' wife had spoken glowingly about a fellow she'd met. She introduced Warboys to him at a Main Street bar now known as Hamar's Pub.

"I looked at him and said 'That's not his name. That's Paul Ceglia.' Right to my face, he was telling me he wasn't Paul, that he was some other guy," Warboys said. "I know who he is. I grew up with him.

"She ended up not believing me because he told such a good story. Once I found my yearbook, I showed her the picture. After she brought that up to him, she never heard from him again."

> But what if?

In the apartment above Texas Hot on Main Street, disgraced Adelphia Communications founder John Rigas was born. It was the diner Rigas' father owned, spawning the family's empire.

The ladies behind the Texas Hot counter aren't too impressed with Ceglia's bold Facebook claim.

"Everybody wants to make a quick buck," waitress Julie Hadsell said after serving her customer a cup of coffee and a slice of coconut-cream pie. "That, to me, sounds like the kind of guy he is."

A few doors down on the same side of the street is the Wellsville Area Chamber of Commerce. Ceglia never has belonged, executive director Steven A. Havey said, but it would be nice to have Facebook's co-owner among the 270 members.

"John Rigas made a lot of friends in Wellsville, gave away a lot of money, gave a lot to the community," Havey said. "People miss that. My hope is that Paul Ceglia, one way or another, will give back to his community.

"This is not a rich town. It has needs. The kids have needs. There are many religious and civic groups that need support."

Wellsville, as a whole, doesn't seem to be counting on it.

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com