Ex-dealer given 33 months in fraud

CONCORD – A car is seldom just a car, and on Monday, several people who were swindled out of their classic cars by a Merrimack dealer told a judge what it meant to them.

For Mary Ellen Johansson and her husband, the sale of their 1965 Corvette was to cover the expenses of adopting the Manchester couple’s second daughter. Instead, her husband had to cash out his retirement savings.

Mark Riley, of Bedford, was selling his Ford Torino Cobra in hopes of keeping his business afloat and to get money for heating oil. His house was too cold last winter for his elderly father to remain there, he said.

Chris Richards of Massachusetts looked forward to selling his 1992 Corvette in order to buy a convertible with enough seats to take all of his children out driving, he said.

Ross Holt’s vintage hot rod was a big chunk of the Colebrook man’s retirement.

“Cars like this, they’re an investment,” Holt said. “I do not invest much in the stock market. I invest in cars . . . . They retain value and increase in value, and you can also have fun with it at the same time.”

Being retired, he said, “I can’t afford to lose this kind of money.”

To all of those one-time customers, who now have neither their cars nor the cash, all Stephen Lussier, 41, of Bedford, could say was that he was sorry.

The former owner of Classic Cars of New England in Merrimack was sentenced Monday to 33 months in prison, followed by five years on supervised release.

Lussier admitted to defrauding Sovereign Bank, New World Leasing and eight customers out of a total of more than $807,000. The prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Kinsella, said Lussier misappropriated money from customers in order to pay other business expenses in an attempt to keep his family business afloat.

“I didn’t set out to do it. I didn’t mean to do it,” Lussier said. “It doesn’t matter; the damage is done.”

U.S. District Court Judge Joseph DiClerico gave Lussier until June 19 to surrender himself wherever the federal Bureau of Prisons tells him to go.

“Restitution is important in cases such as this, but so is appropriate punishment,” DiClerico said.

Lussier will be required to pay restitution for the next 20 years, Kinsella said, but the money will be divvied out proportionately, so the bank and finance company, which lost the most, will get the lion’s share.

Individual car owners who attended the sentencing said they doubt they will see more than pennies on the dollar. Meanwhile, Johansson and Riley said their insurance has refused to pay claims for their cars, because Merrimack police don’t consider their cars stolen, they said, because the cars were sold through Lussier’s dealership with their consent, though they never got paid.

Lussier’s lawyer, Bruce Kenna, noted that Lussier won’t be able to earn money for restitution while imprisoned, and said that prison would also be devastating to his wife and four children.

“He really did intend and think, realistic or not, that he could turn things around and pay people,” Kenna said, adding later, “Mr. Lussier’s community and family would do much better by having him out there paying restitution.”

It wasn’t just money that Lussier took, however, Richards said.

“This whole thing has been extremely upsetting and disturbing,” he said. “It’s a theft of the idea that people are good.”