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The Buffalo News (New York)
In Romania, George Piha was a prominent businessman and politician - then after a car accident, he became an OxyContin addict.
Piha, who holds dual citizenship, returned to the United States and, according to prosecutors, began a statewide crime spree to feed his addiction. Piha stole from YMCAs in the towns of Tonawanda and West Seneca, the Aquatic and Fitness Center in Tonawanda and LA Fitness locations in Clarence and Hamburg, said Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn.
The 51-year-old used a bolt cutter to break into fitness center lockers and take credit cards. He used the stolen cards to buy Apple-brand electronics, which he sold for cash.
A remorseful Piha was sentenced Tuesday in Erie County Court to 2 to 6 years in prison for burglary, identity theft and scheming to defraud. He also must pay the credit card companies more than $95,000 in restitution. He faces charges for similar thefts in the Albany area.
"I know I made horrible mistakes to support my addiction," said Piha, who wore an orange jumpsuit and was shackled at his wrists and waist. "And I have to live with it my whole life. And this is much greater than the punishment I get today."
Piha came to this country in 1994 after winning a visa lottery, Flynn said.
He owned businesses in Queens, including a liquor store, but returned to Romania in 2005 when his father developed Parkinson's disease.
There, Piha started a construction company and, with its success, entered politics. He served as a deputy mayor of a community near the Romanian capital of Bucharest before running unsuccessfully for mayor and for a seat in the national congress.
In 2016 or 2017, Piha got into a car accident and became addicted to prescription painkillers. Flynn said Romania is not welcoming to drug addicts, and that's why Piha returned to Queens in 2017.
He started stealing to feed his addiction, Flynn said.
The district attorney said he didn't know why Piha targeted gyms and fitness centers. Piha would pay for a day pass or brazenly walk past the front desk and into the locker room.
There, he took out bolt cutters he'd hidden under his clothing to cut through the locks, Flynn said. He took credit cards, not cash, and then slipped out of the gym and drove to the Apple store and Best Buy to purchase high-end electronics he could sell for cash.
He was arrested July 30 in the Albany suburb of Slingerlands after a traffic stop. Officers found cut-up credit cards, a wig, disguises, lock-picking equipment and new electronic devices worth more than $10,000 in his van.
Erie County Judge James Bargnesi said he was troubled most by the effort Piha put into his thefts.
"You're obviously a very smart man, and unfortunately you used that intelligence to develop this scheme that, quite frankly, was difficult to unravel," said Bargnesi, noting the possibility of other as-yet-unknown thefts carried out between Buffalo and Albany.
Piha pleaded guilty in October to six counts and faced a maximum of 35 years in prison. Prosecutors say Piha stole $95,355 here and the victims were reimbursed by their credit card companies.
At Tuesday's sentencing, Piha said he, his son and his daughter would start investing in properties to give back to the community after he finishes his sentence.
"I'm assuring you right now, your honor, you're going to hear from me in a few years in a very, very positive way," Piha said.
Flynn noted the epidemic of opioid addiction in this community.
"I'm rooting for him," Flynn said of Piha's post-release plans.
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