BANGOR, Maine — Don French has been waiting for his pellet stove since July, when he paid a deposit of $1,000. Charlie Anderson and William Osmer have been on the hook even longer and for more money. Amy Albert and her husband put $2,100 down in August for a new stove but have received neither the product nor a refund.
The four are victims of alleged thefts by Benjamin Tibbetts III, 33, of Glenburn, a former manager at Sunrise Home and Hearth in Bangor. He was arrested in October after a lengthy investigation. Tibbetts is suspected of taking deposits over several months from customers, then not delivering the stoves. He also allegedly sold stoves under the table and kept the money.
The accused man pleaded not guilty this week in Penobscot County Superior Court and is scheduled for a trial sometime next year. He faces sentencing later this month for a probation violation related to a theft conviction three years ago, Deputy District Attorney Michael Roberts said.
In the meantime, French, Anderson, Osmer, Albert and others who were affected by Tibbetts’ alleged misconduct are wondering about the status of their money.
“We’ve heard the store is closing at the end of the month. Does that mean I don’t get a stove?” French said. “What about my money?”
Albert recently visited the store on Stillwater Avenue to inquire about the status of her purchase. She was told she would receive a refund check in the mail. It hasn’t come yet and now she has a lawyer involved.
Osmer, too, said he is considering legal options to recoup nearly $3,500 he paid to Sunrise Home and Hearth.
Anderson has filed a complaint with the consumer protection unit of the Maine Attorney General’s Office. He said he is worried about the company filing for bankruptcy.
“I’ve got $3,000 invested,” he said. “I’m past the point where I care about getting my stove. But that’s a lot of money.”
So far, there are few answers to the many lingering questions.
In an interview with the Bangor Daily News in October, storeowner Shirley Bartlett expressed remorse over the incidents and said the business’s insurance would cover customers who lost money.
Eric Mehnert, her attorney, said that insurance claim is still being processed but also said the situation has essentially left his client bankrupt.
“She’s made every effort to provide refunds to those who were affected,” he said, adding that anyone who lost money can contact the Attorney General’s Office or the District Attorney’s Office.
Two hand-written signs were posted on the door to the business Thursday that read “closed for today.” Nobody answered phone calls to Sunrise Home and Hearth or its sister store, Maine Home and Hearth in Falmouth.
Roberts said it’s difficult for his office to prove that the store is culpable in any of the thefts. He said he plans to address restitution when Tibbetts is sentenced on the probation violation, but cautioned that the man may not be able to pay right away, if at all.
That’s not good news for customers.
“It’s unfortunate that they are having to sort out this mess that [Tibbetts] created,” Anderson said.
Tibbetts was hired in January to manage the Bangor store. Bartlett 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 and 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.
Tibbetts also has a theft conviction from 2005 when he was caught peddling discounted fuel from a stolen oil truck in Milford. He served nine months in jail on that charge and was ordered to pay back several thousand dollars in restitution, although it’s not clear whether he did so.
The bulk of his jail sentence was suspended for that conviction, but he could serve the balance of that sentence, or five years, according to Roberts. The new theft charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.