Pellet stove store owner working to ease delays

Posted Oct. 09, 2008, at 10:22 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 5:55 a.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Sandra Hodgins of Brewer and her husband bought a stove from Sunrise Home & Hearth in late May with the promise that it would be delivered in six weeks. As of this week, 19 weeks later, they still hadn’t received their stove.

“In July, the store said the stove would be here in August,” Hodgins wrote in an e-mail to the Bangor Daily News. “In August, our name was on a list to receive one of seven stoves that were expected at the store in September. September has come and gone and we are on the list to receive our stove in October.”

Several other customers have called or e-mailed the BDN this week to inquire about their stoves after learning that a former store manager, Benjamin Tibbetts, allegedly had been selling pellet stoves illegally as recently as last month.

Shirley Bartlett, owner of the retail store on Stillwater Avenue, said her phone has been ringing nonstop with calls from customers such as Hodgins. Tibbetts’ alleged actions were isolated, Bartlett said, and she urged people not to panic.

“Unfortunately, this has compounded a problem that was already there,” Bartlett said Thursday, referring to a delay in the pellet stove supply. “But we’re working with everyone affected. We got 40 stoves in this week and we’re working hard to catch up.”

Tibbetts, 33, of Glenburn, was arrested in late September on a probation violation. A subsequent investigation revealed that he reportedly sold pellet stoves for a reduced price and then pocketed the money. So far, Tibbetts has been charged with Class C theft, but those charges could be upgraded by the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office. He is expected to appear in court on Nov. 7.

In the meantime, Orono attorney Eric Mehnert, who represents Sunrise Home & Hearth, said he has filed a civil action seeking to get access to Tibbetts’ bank account to recoup stolen money.

“Whatever is not recovered from him will be covered by the business’s insurance,” Mehnert said.

Because the investigation is not complete, it’s not clear how many customers have been affected by Tibbetts’ alleged misconduct, but Mehnert encouraged customers to call the store if they have concerns.

According to documents filed in Penobscot County Superior Court, Tibbetts is accused of stealing up to $25,000 from the store by selling stoves for cash and not logging the receipts.

Bartlett, who hired Tibbetts in January to manage the Bangor store, said she became suspicious of his sales practices early on and set up a clandestine sting operation to find out exactly what was going on. She convinced “secret shoppers” to try to buy stoves from Tibbetts.

One customer was approached by Tibbetts and told he could get a better deal on a stove if he paid in cash. The man agreed and bought for $1,800 a Vermont Castings pellet stove that retailed at $2,500, police alleged. Tibbetts gave the man a handwritten receipt that did not match the standard Sunrise Home & Hearth receipts.

Bartlett then sent another “secret shopper” to the Bangor store. Tibbetts allegedly sold that customer a $2,400 stove for $900 in cash and offered a handwritten receipt.

The storeowner also told police that she discovered a bank statement from Tibbetts indicating that between mid-June and mid-July, he deposited more than $10,000 into his account.

About three years ago, Tibbetts was caught peddling discounted fuel from a stolen oil truck. He and another man were found guilty of stealing an oil truck from a Milford company in 2005, then selling fuel to customers for as low as $1 a gallon.

He served nine months in jail on those charges and was ordered to pay back several thousand dollars in restitution.

The bulk of his jail sentence was suspended, but if he is found guilty of violating terms of his probation, he could have to serve the balance of the sentence or more than five years. The new Class C theft charge also carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Bartlett said Tibbetts had been upfront about his problems and that she had decided to give him a second chance.

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