Ken Buechs is a churchgoing man. So is Nicholas P. Curro III, whom Beuchs sees from time to time at Sunday Mass in Biddeford.

“I’ve been tempted in church to confront the man,” Buechs said in a telephone interview last week. “But I’m not the violent type.”

His beef?

Eleven years ago this spring, Buechs handed Curro a check for $1,800 – a prepayment on oil to heat Buechs’ home for the coming winter.

He got only a fraction of the oil. And, like more than 300 customers who suffered the same fate to the tune of almost $400,000, he still hasn’t gotten his money back.

“I kept asking, ‘Why isn’t this a criminal case?’ ” Buechs said.

Good question.

Some people get caught taking other people’s money and go to jail.

Others pay the loot back in full, along with whatever fines and interest a judge sees fit to impose.

Then there’s Curro – the guy with the millionaire wife, the waterfront home and the party barge near the mouth of the Saco River. The onetime oil man whose wily navigation of the court system for more than the past decade gives new meaning to the word slippery.

Last week, in the latest of a never-ending string of appearances in York County Superior Court, Curro cut yet another deal that allows him to make $250,000 in restitution to the multitudes he bilked all those years ago.

He’ll do it in increments of $2,500 per month. If he makes every payment – a big if, considering his history of failing to honor past arrangements – he’ll be free and clear in eight years and four months.

And people like Buechs? They’ll get only 60 cents back on every dollar they lost.

No interest.

No penalties.

No justice.

Back in mid-2007, when Curro’s Price Rite Fuel advertised rock-bottom pre-paid oil prices for the winter of 2007-08, state law required that he back up his offer with one of three types of security: a valid wholesale contract for 75 percent of the pre-paid oil, a bond for at least 50 percent of the pre-paid contracts, or a letter of credit covering 100 percent of the pre-paid funds.

One customer actually took the time to ask if Curro met the state requirements. Curro responded by sending a signed copy of the statute along with the note, “We are totally in compliance with the prepaid contracts for heating fuel.”

Sure he was. As the Maine Supreme Judicial Court later noted, “the Price-Rite contracts were not secured by any of the methods provided.”

In all, according to court records, Curro reneged on contracts with 313 customers for a total of $393,735. A court order issued in 2010 required that he and his three oil companies – in addition to Price Rite, he owned Veilleux Oil and Perron Fuel – make full restitution and pay a $250,000 fine. If the customers got their money back in five years, the fine would drop to $25,000.

Never happened.

Which brings us back to Buechs’ question: Why wasn’t Curro charged with a crime?

Actually, he was. Twice.

In one case, he was convicted of driving to endanger after hitting a TV news van with his truck in 2008 while angry customers gathered on the roadside near his business. According to York County District Attorney Kathryn Slattery, he paid a $575 fine and had his license suspended for 45 days.

In the other case, Curro pleaded guilty to two counts of negotiating a worthless instrument for writing bad checks to an oil wholesaler.

The sentence in that case originally required that he pay back the wholesaler some $31,600 and do 200 hours of community service.

Interesting footnote: Curro and his lawyer at the time, Robert M.A. Nadeau, proposed that community service credit be applied to 200 hours Curro claimed he spent putting up campaign signs and otherwise promoting Nadeau’s re-election as York County probate judge in 2012. The court put the kibosh on that scheme, yet at the same time reduced the community service requirement to 100 hours.

So, if Curro was charged criminally for hitting the news van and bilking the wholesaler, why not the same for leaving his 313 customers high and dry?

Because failure to make good on pre-paid oil contracts is a violation of Maine’s Unfair Trade Practices Act – a civil infraction rather than a criminal one.

In order to convict him of a crime, officials connected with the case told me last week, the state would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Curro knew at the time he signed the pre-paid contracts that he wasn’t going to fulfill them.

In other words, without clear-cut evidence of criminal intent, good luck proving the guy committed a crime.

That said, Linda Conti, chief of the Maine Attorney General’s Division of Consumer Protection, understands why all those customers have grown increasingly livid with each passing year.

“Those people feel victimized,” Conti said. “It may be just a simple breach of contract. It may be just that he ripped them off. But they feel as if they’ve been burglarized.”

Conti’s job, rather than put Curro in jail, is to get those customers’ money back. Which, considering his lifestyle, might look like a piece of cake.

According to a brief Conti filed with the court earlier this month, Curro and his wife, Lisa, live an “extravagant lifestyle” that includes their waterfront home, the $33,000 pontoon boat docked on the picturesque Saco River shoreline, three leased vehicles costing $2,248 a month, $3,000 a year for their son’s private-school tuition and, last but not least, the sizable chunk of land next to their home that is in the process of becoming Tide Water Estates – a 12-unit subdivision with access to the water.

But here’s the rub: The Curros file separate tax returns. Anything of any real value belongs either to a family trust set up by Lisa Curro’s deceased parents or is the sole property of Lisa Curro, who listed $3 million in assets on her application for the boat loan.

And Nicholas Curro? He now works for NPC3, a tree service owned by his wife, and hands over his entire paycheck to her to cover expenses for the household he doesn’t actually own.

According to the AG’s office, Curro reported just under $333,000 in gross income from 2013-15. Yet in 2016, that plummeted to just $29,915 in gross income and was later amended to a $27,137 net operating loss.

Add to that Nicholas Curro’s $160,000 in outstanding credit card debt, his “substantial” unpaid state and federal income taxes, the “mortgage, tax liens and several writs of execution” on the rental property the couple own jointly across the street from their home and you get the picture: Unlike his wife, who’s working hard to cash in on all that land she inherited, Curro is a veritable pauper on paper.

In fact, according to the AG’s Conti, Curro has promised more than once that he’ll file for bankruptcy before he pays back the money he took from all those people so many years ago.

Thus, by the time the gavel finally sounded on Monday, the state had settled for a $250,000 fine – unlike a restitution order, it’s harder to shake off in bankruptcy court. The money will be distributed in annual payments to the victims via the AG’s office.

Superior Court Justice Wayne Douglas warned Curro not to fall behind in the payments this time. He added, in a colossal understatement, that “this case has gone on far too long.”

So, just like that, the longstanding judgment against Curro for almost $394,000 simply disappears?

“Well, that’s what settlement is,” replied Conti. “The way we see it, if we can get $250,000, that’s more than 50 cents on the dollar. Which is good.”

Try telling that to Buechs.

He used to count the weekly collection money at Good Shepherd Parish with a woman “of little means” who also fell prey to Curro. Week in and week out, they’d compare notes on the latest developments in the case.

“She passed away four or five years ago,” he said. “And that hurt.”

Now, Buechs said, it’s no longer about the money.

“It’s the agony he’s put so many people through. It’s grating on me because I see the opulence of him and his family virtually every weekend. It’s a constant reminder.”

It’s also proof positive that our justice system, however well intentioned, sometimes ends up protecting the wrong party.

Wednesday morning, I called Curro to ask if he wanted to comment on his current situation.

“Comment about what?” he said.

Speaking of the many people he left in the cold, I said, “I’ll be very frank with you. What I’m wondering is what happened on the criminal side of this, why you weren’t charged with anything criminal.”

“You’re being malicious, now,” he replied.

“No, I’m not,” I countered. “It’s a legitimate question.”

“You’re being malicious, OK?” he repeated. “Have a nice day.”

With that, he hung up.

Maybe it was time for church.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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