Police: Two men charged in fraudulent check scheme
Two men are accused of stealing thousands of dollars in a scheme involving fraudulent checks and taking advantage of a devout Catholic who believed he was helping them, according to arrest warrant affidavits.
Stephen G. Lucci, 31, of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Philip P. Milazzo, 28, of Bensalem, Pa., both have been charged with first-degree larceny, first-degree forgery and second-degree conspiracy to commit larceny.
The pair are accused of taking advantage of an unidentified 71-year-old parishioner of Sacred Heart Church in Groton, who is described as a “soft spoken individual” who often reads scripture during various Masses and has “expressed his willingness to help people who are less fortunate,” the affidavits say.
The parishioner met Lucci and Milazzo in September 2018 after Mass at the church, when they told him their car had broken down. The parishioner gave them a ride in his car to an uncertain address in Groton because it was raining and he “felt it was the Christian thing” to do, the affidavits say.
About a month later, Lucci and Milazzo started asking the parishioner for money. It started with small amounts, between $20 and $50. In April 2019, they asked the parishioner to cash a $25 check for them from the personal checking account of an unidentified pastor at Our Lady of Grace Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., the affidavits say. The parishioner said Lucci and Milazzo told him the money was to help them secure an apartment and repair their car.
The pair approached the parishioner with more checks, which he said he felt obligated to cash for them. He said he cashed checks for the pair about five times.
The parishioner told police he believed he was helping Lucci and Milazzo, who he said appeared “lost.” He said over the course of 10 months he felt like he became a father figure to the two young men, who he said needed help getting back on their feet. The three often attended Mass together on Sunday evenings, and the parishioner offered the young men life advice and spiritual guidance. He often gave them rides from a motel in Groton to wherever they needed to go. He also let Lucci drive his vehicle sometimes, although he never let the pair take the vehicle without him. The parishioner even would drive them to Brooklyn, N.Y., so Lucci could visit his mother, the affidavits say.
The parishioner said the pair promised to repay him but have not yet done so.
On July 1, 2019, police were called to the Chelsea Groton Bank at 1319 Gold Star Highway in Groton. The parishioner, who was a longtime bank customer, had been attempting to cash a $10,000 check from the personal checking account of a pastor at the Our Lady of Grace Church. Two days prior, the parishioner had cashed a check for $6,000 from the same pastor. Bank staff had become suspicious as to why a priest would write personal checks for $16,000 in two days, the affidavits say, and notified police.
The parishioner told police that he had been cashing checks for the two young men, referring to them as his sons.
The bank staff had explained to him that he was responsible for the money, which was being withdrawn from his bank account. He was told the two checks seemed suspicious because they were the same but the signatures on them were different. The parishioner “became anxious and frantic,” the affidavits say, and said he did not feel right about cashing the $10,000 check, which was photocopied and returned to him uncashed.
The parishioner told police that he gave the $10,000 check back to Milazzo and told Milazzo and Lucci he could no longer cash checks for them.
Police contacted the Our Lady of Grace Church pastor, who said he knows Lucci and his family. The pastor said Lucci was his personal altar server for years and that he had written a single check for $25 on April 2, 2019, and sent it to Lucci, who had asked him for money. He said he never sent checks to Milazzo. The pastor said Lucci wrote him a letter thanking him for the money but said it should have been more. The pastor told police that he tore up the letter and never responded to Lucci.
When shown copies of the $6,000 and $10,000 checks supposedly from his account, the pastor said the signatures on them were not his. He closed that account and opened a new one, saying that his bank told him checks for $6,000 and $10,000 were not cashed due to insufficient funds but he said his signature had been forged on four other checks for lower amounts that had been cashed.
He said he’d lost $5,200 from his account that was compromised. He is attempting to get the money reimbursed, the affidavits say.
Police said records from the pastor’s CitiBank checking account show three checks to Milazzo were cashed for a total of $3,100, while Chelsea Groton records show four checks, two to Lucci and two to Milazzo, were cashed in New London and Groton against the parishioner’s account, totaling $21,000. Police said the signatures on those checks did not match the signature on the check that the pastor said he’d written for $25.
Lucci did not have access to the pastor’s belongings, including his checkbook, so it was unclear how the apparently fraudulent checks were obtained.
The parishioner told police that he willingly cashed the checks without coercion or threats but he fears retribution from Lucci and Milazzo, fearing they will threaten himself and his family.
Groton Town police arrested Lucci and Milazzo on Dec. 2, and each was being held on a $75,000 court-set cash or surety bond.
Separately, police charged Milazzo with failure to appear in court on a sixth-degree larceny charge out of Waterford from a May 19, 2019, arrest.
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