Lockport lawyer Edward R. Thiel conceded Wednesday that it was "stupid" of him to take $63,684 owed to four clients and parcel it out to his 26-year-old son, who allegedly spent the money buying drugs.
Lockport City Judge William J. Watson, citing Thiel's "utter and complete lack of remorse, or any attempt to make up for it," sentenced the 73-year-old attorney to five years' probation, with the first six months to be spent in the Niagara County Jail.
Watson also ordered Thiel, a former assistant public defender, to pay at least $1,400 a month in restitution. Failure to do so would be a probation violation, giving Watson the possibility of resentencing Thiel to as long as four years in state prison for fourth-degree grand larceny.
"I believe him when he tells me he thought he was helping his kid," said David J. Farrugia, the county public defender retained by Thiel.
"It's got to stop before you reach $63,000," Watson said. "It wasn't a one-shot deal."
"Stupid, yes," Thiel said.
The money came from the 2014 sale of real estate on Chestnut Road in Wilson, inherited by the four children of the late Donald K. Beutel, a farmer and greenhouse owner.
Thiel, who was Beutel's longtime attorney, handled the closing and deposited the proceeds in his escrow account so four equal checks could be cut. The heirs never received any money.
"Bottom line: I want my money back and I want this to be over," William S. Beutel, one of the heirs, said after the sentencing.
He accused Thiel of doing his best to avoid contact with the family, a point Watson also made.
"They reach out to someone they trusted, and there's nothing," the judge said.
"Do I feel for them? Certainly," Thiel said.
In a May 8 interview with Investigator William M. Thomson of the Niagara County District Attorney's Office, Thiel said he was giving the money to his son to pay for dental work. He found out later, however, the money went for drugs.
"Correct," Thiel confirmed to a reporter after sentencing.
He declined further comment.
Farrugia said Thiel's son also burned through his father's life savings.
"Ed has lived a quiet lifestyle. He's never been a flashy lawyer," Farrugia said. "The money he saved has gone in the same direction as the money he took from the Beutels."
Watson allowed Thiel to remain free until 8 a.m. Monday.
Now that the case is over, the Beutels probably will be paid by the Lawyers' Fund for Client Protection, maintained by the state to reimburse clients ripped off by their attorneys, Farrugia said. Thiel then would owe restitution to that fund.