When Paul J. Blarr was sentenced in 2015 to from 23 to 69 years in prison for cheating dozens of customers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars at his Williamsville jewelery store, even prosecutors were surprised.
Frank A. Sedita III, who was district attorney at the time, called it “the most punitive sentence that I have seen in Erie County for a white collar crime.”
“To put it in its proper context,” Sedita explained, “this is the sentence you will more typically see in a murder case, rape case or the most violent of felonies.”
Nevertheless, Appellate judges this week upheld Blarr’s conviction and his sentence.
Blarr pleaded guilty in 2014 to one count of scheming to defraud at least 89 of his customers and to 10 counts of grand larceny. He had been selling fake diamonds and other gems as the real thing for more than 16 years at RSNP Diamond Exchange on Main Street, Williamsville. He also was taking jewelry from customers to sell on consignment but not always giving them any money or returning their items.
When it came time for sentencing, Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka listened as customers talked about the betrayal they felt, and the emotional pain of losing heirlooms, money and memories to Blarr.
The judge then handed down the indeterminate sentence of up to 69 years in prison, reading of the names of each victim as he did so.
Blarr pleaded guilty to fewer charges than he may have faced at trial and, as with most plea agreements, he also signed waivers that he would not appeal his conviction or his sentence.
But in April, attorney Evan Lumley appeared before the judges of the Appellate Division, Fourth Department to press Blarr’s claim that he did not have effective legal counsel when he entered his guilty pleas, and that the sentence was excessive.
“Mr. Blarr received no benefit by proceeding from his counsel,” Lumley said, noting that Blarr pleaded to the highest charges possible. “It couldn’t have been any worse that it was.”
Justice John V. Centra questioned whether that was the case. He mentioned that a second count against Blarr, which he didn’t plea to, cited 120 victims, meaning there could have been more than 200 consecutive sentences, in the worst case.
“It appears that he ultimately pled to a lot less than that,” Centra said.
Julie Bender Fiske, representing the District Attorney’s Office, said that, without the plea Blarr would have faced a triple-digit indictment and could have received a 27 to 81 year sentence if convicted, instead of the 23 to 69 years.
And, she pointed out, by operation of law, Blarr would be serving only 10 to 20 years of the sentence he did receive.
The panel’s decision to affirm Pietruszka’s rulings was unanimous.
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