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Thefts of parking coins in Buffalo form 'major bank heist'

| Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 9:42 p.m.

BUFFALO — From the moment parking meter mechanic James Bagarozzo began his scheme to steal from the machines, his life became overrun with quarters. He stashed them in his pockets, in a sack in his truck and in closets at his house.

Over more than eight years, he brought home $210,000 worth of quarters — 10,500 pounds of them — which he dutifully rolled and packed in $500 boxes to be exchanged for cash at banks on his lunch hour.

On Friday, a judge imposed a more than 2-year sentence on Bagarozzo, who blamed a gambling addiction and an illness he believed would kill him before he built a nest egg for his family.

“With all its problems, the last thing the city of Buffalo needs is employees who don't do what they're paid to do,” U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara said as he rejected a defense plea for home confinement or community service.

From 2003 through 2011, the meter mechanic spent the first half of every workday stealing from 70 to 75 meters, prosecutors said. Rather than fix machines, he broke them so that quarters would collect on top where he could grab them with his hands instead of dropping into the collection canister.

Bagarozzo, speaking purposely but with little emotion, apologized during a brief statement to the court.

“I have hit rock bottom, and I have had to come up with my family and friends,” the 58-year-old said.

A former co-worker, Lawrence Charles, followed Bagarozzo's lead, stealing $15,000 in quarters over about five years, prosecutors said. He was expected to get six months to a year in prison. His sentencing was postponed.

The employees came under scrutiny in 2011 when Parking Commissioner Kevin Helfer noticed the city's new computerized pay stations were bringing in far more money than the old quarter-fed parking meters.

“What may have begun as a theft of nickels and dimes, in the end was the equivalent of a major bank heist,” U.S. Attorney William Hochul said.

Since the arrests, the city's annual parking meter revenue has increased by more than $500,000, Helfer said.

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