BY JULIE MANGANIS STAFF WRITER
The Salem News
---- — DANVERS — A Swampscott man will spend the next 21/2 years in jail after admitting yesterday to swindling customers of his Danvers auto sales business out of their cars and cash.
Daniel Wright, 46, pleaded guilty during a hearing in Salem Superior Court to four counts of larceny and four forgery and forgery-related charges. Prosecutors were seeking to send him to state prison for four to six years.
Instead, when Wright is released from jail, in as little as 15 months, he’ll have a $53,000 restitution bill and a potential for up to 40 years in prison if he doesn’t pay up.
Wright and his lawyer say he was simply trying to save his business, Sterling Motor Cars, on a stretch of Route 114 filled with other auto dealerships.
“He was robbing Peter to pay Paul,” prosecutor Michael Patten told Judge Howard Whitehead during the sentencing hearing. “It’s not a justification. It’s still a crime to rob Peter.”
“These were bona fide consumers,” Patten said. “They did not expect to be put in the position they found themselves in.”
And for those customers, that position was awful: a young widowed mother trying to finance an SUV by selling her late husband’s Mercedes; another young woman who bought a Jeep only to have the police show up and return it to its owner, who hadn’t been paid for it; and another woman who was persuaded by Wright to take out a $15,749 car loan from a credit union, only to find out that the car she was buying was not available and that Wright had all the money.
“I trusted Dan at my most vulnerable time,” said Stacey Chicoine, a Melrose woman who had just lost her husband, Joey, 42, to brain cancer and was trying to care for a set of 9-month-old twins.
There was no life insurance, Chicoine told the judge, but her late husband had always pointed to the Mercedes S600 and told her to sell that.
So she went to Wright in May 2010.
“He knew I was a widow, and he took advantage of me anyway,” she said in a victim-impact statement.
Chicoine was going to use the proceeds from the sale of the luxury car to buy a Lexus SUV that Wright also had on the lot. Wright convinced her that she should take out a car loan, which she could repay once the Mercedes was sold.
Then, Patten said, Wright sold the Mercedes for $61,000. He never told Chicoine. Instead, he forged her late husband’s signature on the title and pocketed the money.
An Ipswich woman who spotted a Jeep Wrangler on Wright’s lot took out a loan for $23,149, then drove the car off the lot, only to find out a month later that legally, she did not own it.
Once again, Wright had pocketed the money and never paid the original owner of the Jeep, who eventually got the police involved to get his car back.
Wright eventually confessed to the scheme.
His lawyer, Robert Sheketoff, urged Whitehead to impose no more than six months in jail for his client, a sentence that would have made him eligible for parole almost immediately since he’d been held in custody at one point while awaiting trial.
“So, he was robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Sheketoff said. “It’s not a defense. It’s an explanation. He was trying to save a business that was falling apart.”
Sheketoff blamed the economic downturn for Wright’s difficulties.
“This is a tragedy for everybody involved,” Sheketoff said.
Wright also asked to speak. He told Whitehead, “I made a terrible choice. I carry that remorse in my heart every day. I know today these are empty words to Stacey, but I hope someday I can prove that they’re not.”
But Chicoine, who has waited 21/2 years to see Wright held accountable, wasn’t convinced that Wright is sorry.
And at this point, she’s doubtful she’ll ever see any of the money she’s owed.
The case had been delayed by a series of events, including three different attorneys representing Wright, who also delayed the process by agreeing to and then backing out of several earlier plea hearings.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.